An Interview with Natalie Nayun
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Natalie Nayun is a dancer and teacher currently based in Santa Fe, NM, and Oakland, CA, who specializes in the folkloric dances of Central Asia. She founded the international online school Pomegranate Garden Dance that features Persian, Afghan, Tajik, Uzbek dances and more. Here, she shares more about the dances of Central Asia and some common misconceptions, as well as how her online platform has created access for students who can’t travel to Central Asia and for teachers who can’t teach outside the Central Asian region.
Can you share a little about your history and what shaped you as a dancer today?
I started dancing when I was a teenager in Santa Fe, NM, with Middle Eastern belly dancing. I got into a program that was free after school. I moved to the Bay Area for college and continued to dance there. I moved from belly dance into modern and contemporary. And then I discovered Persian dance when I was 20 or 21 through Miriam Peretz, who is a beautiful dancer. I’d never heard of Persian dance before. I stumbled into it and really loved it. I continued to explore Persian dance through Miriam and then started seeking out other teachers. I also learned the music and history behind the dances. I went to school at UC Berkeley and minored in dance. While I was there, I received a grant to study in Tajikistan. In Tajikistan, they also speak Persian. I went to study language and dance and fell more in love with it. I realized that much of what I’d seen in the US was an interpretation of the dance, not how the dance was currently practiced. I went back a couple summers later to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to take from various teachers and work with different groups. I’ve been doing these dance styles for the past 12 to 13 years and feel that it is so important to study with teachers of origin and if possible in the countries as well because dance is reflective of so much culturally and politically. I work with different companies mostly based out of the Bay Area and perform as a soloist.
How would you describe Central Asian folkloric dance to someone unfamiliar with it?
This is a hard question to answer because Central Asia is a huge region consisting of many countries with different regional identities in each country. Each of the dances is different but there are also some similarities. I refer to the areas I focus on as dances of the Persianate world. That includes the countries that speak Persian and have cultural similarities such as Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Xinjiang (East Turkestan) and more. Just a small history: Many of those countries gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. But 100 years ago before the Soviet Union took over, it was all one big area. The Soviet Union divided different cultural identities across borders, so there are Uzbeks in Tajikistan, Azerbaijanis in Iran, etc. That’s why there are a lot of similarities in the dances among those countries.
Many people think Persian Dance must be similar to belly dance but it is very different both in the movements and the costumes. Persian dance is more about expression in the upper body, flowy movements, and creating lines and angles in the body. You won’t see belly rolls or much hip movements. Usually we wear long dresses because these dances are from more conservative countries. The dresses also reflect the elegance of the dance. There are regional styles with different music and movements reflective of the people’s regional cultural identity. Beyond that, how people dance at weddings or parties is different than onstage. When the dances move to the stage, they get bigger and more acrobatic; the backbends are deeper, the spins are faster. At parties, the dances are improvised, but onstage, the dances become codified and are usually choreographed.
The Soviets wanted to create a national identity away from religion, and one of the ways they did that was through the arts. Dancing in public is generally looked down upon in Islamic society. So moving the local dances to the stage was a big transition. In many instances it was the Jewish population who were public dancers and performers and also women from orphanages. Eventually it became more accepted to see Muslim women dancers onstage, but usually only until they are married. Nowadays performative dance is still looked down upon but not as much as when it was first brought to the stage.
When people ask me to describe the dance I tell people it’s a mix between classical Indian, Chinese, and ballet, even though that’s not exactly correct. It helps give people a very general sense of what the dances look like. There are so many different styles, you can’t even really say, “Tajik dance,” but for people who have never even heard of Tajikistan, it starts with education.
Why was Pomegranate Garden Dance founded and how is it organized?
I started it at the beginning of the pandemic. I had been taking gaga classes online; they had a fundraising page and were offering online donation classes. I thought I should do something similar for Persian and Central Asian dance, as all us teachers were out of work due to the pandemic. I called and Whatsapped my teachers and colleagues about my idea: I would help organize classes they could teach online, and it would be set up as a fundraiser. I thought of the idea on a Sunday, and started Pomegranate Garden Dance that Wednesday. It exploded. First there were two classes a day, and then there were three or four. The teachers are from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Poland, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, the US, and more. We have had teachers from more than 15 countries and students from more than 70 countries. For the first two months, the classes were by donation, and then I transferred Pomegranate Garden Dance to a website.
Today there are one to four classes a day and recorded video is offered for those who cannot attend live. At the beginning of the pandemic, people in different time zones were getting up in the middle of the night to take class, and that just wasn’t sustainable long term. I plan on continuing Pomegranate Garden Dance because it allows access, though I’m trying to figure out in what capacity it will continue. Before the pandemic, if I wanted to study from teachers in Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, I had to write grants, which I did not get most of the time. Online classes allow accessibility financially and physically for both the teachers and the students.
Classes are offered on a sliding scale and about 50 percent of our students are on scholarship. Many people cannot afford classes or live in countries where the dollar is a lot of money so people often pay the equivalent of what a dance class would be in their country. I get emails regularly asking me not to stop Pomegranate Garden Dance because it’s difficult to take classes from teachers who teach these styles and live in these areas of the world. And teachers get access to students from all over the world. It is nearly impossible for some of these teachers to get visas to teach elsewhere. Most of the teachers on Pomegranate live in or are from the countries of origin.
What are some preconceived notions of Central Asian dances?
Most people haven’t heard of this area of the world. The countries that people do know are usually Iran and Afghanistan because those countries are in the news. Many people don’t even know there is dancing at all. People sometimes do have negative and false notions of Islam and Middle Eastern culture, and a part of our platform is educating people. We offer cultural lectures on history, music, costumes, and politics, as well as discussions on cultural appropriation and saviorship. When I started learning these dances, I had to do that research and seek out others who have devoted their lives to these parts of the world. It is great to be able to offer access to dancers and researchers around the world to learn more and create greater awareness around this part of the world.
One false assumption people often make is in relation to Iran. In Iran, publicly dancing is illegal, so many people outside Iran think Iranians don’t dance and women don’t have freedom. That’s not true; there’s a huge underground dance scene. Some groups are allowed to perform publicly if they are folk troupes and male only. Women can perform for other women in certain circumstances. The movie “Desert Dancer” led to a lot of these false tropes. Sometimes dancers have to call it “theater” instead of “dance,” but dance isn’t something that doesn’t exist in Iran and therefore needs to be carried on in the West. One of the lectures offered spoke to this in much more depth. We have close to 200 Iranian students who have taken class with us.
Is there a dialogue within Central Asian dance forms about traditional versus contemporary?
It’s complex and there is some confusion about what is traditional versus contemporary. Some dances are obviously traditional in that they have been preserved and are done in a specific way to represent a specific region or style. But even within these traditional dances there are some newer movements. The dancers I know in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan sometimes wish they could explore more contemporary ideas and feel stuck just performing traditional dances. I feel it’s good to know the history and the regional styles but good to also leave room for exploration, experimentation, and growth. Some dance companies I’ve worked with in Tajikistan do a more contemporary style of solo or duet waltzing and fusion with flamenco. There are also other more experimental things happening.
In terms of Persian dance, there is Qajar dance which is a very specific style from the Qajar dynasty danced to a specific part in a classical music composition called “reng.” A lot of what is called classical Persian dance is actually much newer and has a lot of ballet incorporated into the movements as well as long lines and ethereal themes found in Persian miniature paintings. Today, dancers do classical Persian dance to more contemporary music or even pop music. The dancer Apsara Afsanesara coined the term “neoclassical,” which is a nice way to say it is a newer classical form.
When I’ve gone to study in these countries, half the company dance classes are ballet. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, there are a lot of classes in hip hop and belly dance. Waltzing is also a big thing and I once went to a tango class. There’s also Russian character dance that gets incorporated into some of the performances, especially the knee bends and jumps.
Is there an idealized body for dance styles from Central Asia?
For people dancing at parties and celebrations, it’s everybody, especially the grandmas, who dance the most vibrant and uninhibited. For stage dance, I would say the image is young pretty women. They are mostly teenagers because when they marry they usually stop dancing. When I am there, I’m considered old and people ask me all the time why I’m not married. By the time most women are my age, they are married and have kids, so the fact that I am older and unmarried is worrisome. There’s still that stigma around women dancing after a certain age. From what I’ve seen, the men dancing are older. It’s frustrating for teachers because they train a young woman and then she gets married. Her responsibilities change. I want to emphasize this is not a bad thing, it’s just different.
I’m curious about these dances performed in Central Asia versus outside the region. Is there a difference?
In Iran, as I mentioned earlier, women cannot dance publicly. I have not traveled to Iran, so I cannot speak of this firsthand. But outside of Iran many women in the diaspora do dance and perform.
In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the companies are mostly government funded. They travel throughout the region and sometimes abroad to showcase the regional folkloric and contemporary dances. There are also usually dancers performing with famous musicians. The dances are often shown on national television. So it is different than in Iran.
In the US, there are only a handful of dancers that focus on these styles professionally, and it’s a very small group even in the larger world. We are usually hired to perform at festivals, celebrations, holiday events, and weddings.
There are only a handful of dancers specializing in these styles partially because of access. It’s nearly impossible for many of my teachers to come to the US. Then many people in the US don’t even know where these countries are. The people who are interested have the barriers of not knowing the language or can’t get visas or funding. As a result, the number of people who study Central Asian dance is small in comparison to belly dancing, Indian classical dance, or flamenco. This is why Pomegranate Garden Dance has been really amazing: because it connects students to teachers.
Things are changing because it is easier to access teachers online. Before, a dance teacher in the US may have studied briefly with someone from the country of origin or they saw a YouTube video that may or may not have featured a dancer from a country of origin, and based their dancing off that. It has the same general feel, but it’s not what dancers in-country would consider correct. I think it is important to title the dances correctly, saying “inspired by” or “based on” rather than saying it is a specific style.
Any other thoughts?
Tragedy is happening in Afghanistan right now. We have regular fundraisers on Pomegranate Garden Dance. A lot of our teachers are in the Afghan diaspora and are able to get resources into the country. That’s been a big focus of mine that I feel is really important.