Dance Is Culture Made Visible

Photo courtesy of BAHAR Dance Group
Photo courtesy of BAHAR Dance Group
Photo courtesy of BAHAR Dance Group

By Elisabeth Chernichenko

Who are we, and how do we fit in? Sometimes, the only answer is to dance.

“I see dancing as a way [to] express my feelings and beliefs about my culture. [Iranian] culture is a big part of my identity and I try to keep in touch with it through the traditional dances that I do. I hope to showcase a tiny part of Iran’s rich and finest art and culture this way, away from politics and religion.”

Maryam Vaseghi-Shanjani, 20, is the artistic director, founder, and choreographer of the McMaster Iranian Dance Association, also known as The Bahar Dance Group. “Bahar” means “spring” in Farsi. This represents the philosophy of the dancers as “something that is growing, and something that is blossoming” in a new place and time.

“I find it really important because it has come to my attention that there are Iranians in my university and community who have become out of touch from their culture. Some have just not had the opportunity to get involved and some don’t want to keep involved,” she explains. “I hope to get the Iranian community back together and unite them, at least in McMaster University. I see my dance association as not only teaching and learning dance, but really a way to unite Iranians on campus in a very healthy and fun way.”

Maryam has loved dance since she moved to Canada when she was 10 years old. She did not train in a conservatory, but instead learned dance informally through her participation in traditional Iranian dance groups in Toronto.

Maryam is now a science student at McMaster University. She utilizes her passion for dance to bring together the Iranians that, she says, speckle the McMaster ground, fragmented from their culture in Iran and their present lives.

“I feel like I don’t belong because I don’t feel completely Iranian, and I don’t feel completely Canadian. It’s almost like having an identity crisis. That’s one of the challenges that I’m feeling. ‘Who Am I?’” she wonders. “Sometimes I can’t associate with both groups. We’re just our own special type of people who have had half of our lives back home, and half here.”

Maryam has been contesting stereotypes on multiple fronts with her beautiful mix of modern, yet traditionally inspired, dance choreography—stereotypes that come from both within the Iranian community as well as ones that exist to the outside eyes.

“I hear a lot, ‘Do Iranians even dance?’ or ‘Do women and men even dance together?’ Yes! Of course! There are nearly a dozen ethnic groups in Iran which encompass their own unique culture, art, costumes and dance. Looking back at Iran’s history, you can see that many of these dances originated a couple of hundred years ago, if not thousands. It’s just that the world doesn’t really know about it partly because of the present political situation of our country, and because what we see in the news is not particularly about Iran’s art and culture, unfortunately.”

“We are joyous people. We are happy, we smile, and we dance.”

According to Maryam, the stereotypes that arise from the Iranian–Canadian community also come from a place of misunderstanding.

“The dance association is not a political one. [Politics] defeat the whole purpose of art, culture and dance. My goal is to just have a safe and friendly environment where I can spread the beauty of Iranian dance away from politics or religion. I see dancing as a way for us to practice our culture, as a way of communicating our heritage and identity to the outside world.”

“Gender doesn’t matter. We’re equal. Attractions between females and males don’t have to be sexual,” she explains.

“There are certain stereotypes about gender and sexuality in both communities. It is generally believed that there must be a chemistry between dance partners. Girls and boys in our group are just friends.”

“I’m trying to raise consciousness among my audience by showing that human beings, no matter what their gender is, can communicate and understand each other in a way.”

Her intention is to mend the fissure in the Iranian community between the newcomers and those who have lived in Canada for a long time by reconnecting them with their heritage. Maryam contends that Iranian newcomers often reject their culture because they associate it with the political and cultural restrictions they experienced in Iran prior to immigrating. Once established in Canada, their Iranian identity can be harder to connect with due to cultural assimilation.

The Bahar Dance Group’s most recent performance at McMaster University was on the theme of “Unity.”

“Through this performance, I aim to communicate with my audience that there are many different ethnic groups in Iran, yet we are all one nation. That’s my message. I feel that we as Iranians sometimes forget that what ethnic group we belong to, the language we speak, or our different accents, and differences in our skin complexion…all these, they are just irrelevant. At the end of the day, we are all Iranian; we can live together in unison and peace. That’s what makes our culture and heritage so rich and beautiful”.


Elisabeth Chernichenko is a Media Arts and Journalism student at Mohawk College.