On a recent Friday, more than 100 people squeezed into the Al-Aska shrine on Northern Lights Boulevard. They were greeted by the savory aromas of homemade Persian food, including black bean soup, a variety of aromatic rices, chicken stewed in a rich pomegranate sauce and split pea koresh followed by almond baklava and saffron pudding spiced with biting cardamom. At the end of the table were several pots of tea. When poured, the drink gave off a strong and heady aroma of jasmine, flowery and intoxicating. While the audience sampled the sweet and complex flavors of Persian cooking, a troupe of colorful dancers prepared to excite the guests' visual palate as well.
The event was a fundraiser for the Simorgh-Farima Dance Company, a group focusing on Persian and Silk Road dances which regularly performs at cultural events around town. The company takes its name from a legendary mythological creature and a contemporary dancer
In Iran and Central Asia, there is a legend, which tells the tale of a mythical bird called the Simorgh, a creature of unity. It is also the name that dance ethnologist Farima Berenji chose for her worldwide dance collective.
That collective found its start in Alaska when a group of women, inspired by a series of workshops hosted by Berenji decided to found the Simorgh-Farima Dance Company of Alaska.
"I know we're the only people in Alaska, and we're one of the few dance groups probably in the whole United States who are actually doing this and showing these kind of dances."
Late one evening, the Simorgh Dance Company gathered at a local dance studio to practice for the upcoming performance. They began with a traditional basket dance, which like many indigenous dances is designed to tell a story of everyday life. The dance includes a step, which the group dubbed the "booty bump." Far from resembling the meaningless twerking that Americans are well acquainted with, this dance step is meant to represent the movements made by a woman with a baby on her back, soothing her child as she gathers rice in the field.
It quickly became clear while watching the group rehearse that for the Simorgh collective, context and culture is everything. Though most of them are not Persian, accuracy and authenticity is a main priority. Each dancer is well-versed in the history and culture of the region from which they draw their art, with a deep appreciation for its elegance and grace.
"We need to know, really at a practical level what that bumping movement means whatever folk dance it is, we have to know where it comes from so we can do it justice," says Simorgh member Kathy Burgoyne.
"With Persian dance, a really big part of it is the expression of your face and your eyes and your hands," says assistant director Mary Ann Benoit."You're telling a story, and you know, to really be able to do that well, you bare your soul when you're up there dancing."
A couple of years ago, the company was performing at a Bridge Builders event in Anchorage. Gita Franklin was in attendance as a representative of the Persian community and was surprised to hear the sounds of something oddly familiar. Franklin recalls thinking, "What is that music? I know this song. This is Persian." When she saw the company dancing, each dancer dressed from head to foot in a stunning array of costumes, Franklin was inspired to join the group and get reconnected with her culture.
Franklin explains that she fled Iran as a teen, after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and created the dictatorship that remains in power today.
"When I moved from Persia to Sweden, I lost the connection with everything, and I got busy getting involved with the new society, new culture," Franklin recalls. "I forgot about it until these ladies brought me back. It was like they opened the window."
Simorgh has found engagement with the local Persian community to be a rewarding experience, and Franklin approves. "I'm honored having other people who are not from my country, not from my culture take so much pride in it, and learn it." That feeling of honor is not held by Franklin alone. Burgoyne recalls the reception the company received after a performance for Alaska Refugee Day. "They had no idea that they would see their dances at that event, " Burgoyne says. "They had no idea there were people who were dancing it, so it was just really nice to connect with them."
The women of the dance company joke that they're an older group, lacking in younger members. But they also note that in many folkloric cultures, elders stand as the gatekeepers of tradition. And their goal, more than anything is to keep Persian dance alive.
"I know we're the only people in Alaska, and we're one of the few dance groups probably in the whole United States who are actually doing this and showing these kind of dances," says Benoit.
"As she rose, she began to spin, faster and faster, moving her hands, her head, her hair, all in circles, in an almost trance-like state, never ceasing to spin until the dance concluded- a dizzying feat to say the least."
All of this is thanks to the inspiration and teachings of Farima Berenji whose work is at the crossroads where history and art meet. Berenji is a dancer, teacher, and anthropologist who has traveled around the world teaching and promoting the many and varied dances of the Silk Road.
Identifying as Azeri Iranian, her grandmother danced for the national company of Azerbaijan; her mother, the national company of Iran. She comes from a family of dancers, and for Berenji, she sees her work as a continuation of Iran's longstanding musical tradition.
"We have such an old, ancient history, and Iran is the civilization of sacred dance and music-that's where it was developed-and so people are very poetic there," Berenji told the Press. They love music. I mean you go to someone's house, and after dinner, no matter how many people that are there-two or 500-after dinner there is always poetry recitation, it's always music, and people put music on and start dancing."
The state of global politics has pushed Iran into the spotlight as a nation at odds with the United States. What Americans hear on the news tends to focus on Iran's nuclear program, and their participation in regional conflicts. What people do not hear about is Iranian culture. In the years following the Islamic Revolution, Iranians faced immense struggles, but according to Berenji, art helped them remain resilient. "I think there's some things that no matter how much, for example a dictatorship wants to take away, there's something within your blood that they cannot take," Berenji says. "And so the poetry and the dance, or music-no matter how much they tried, they couldn't. It was always there. And I think people really fought to keep it, and it was never taken from them It was the dance and poetry and music that really kept the people's spirit alive during that time of chaos, and it really gave them strength."
And although Iran is officially considered an Islamic nation, for many in the region, music reigns supreme. Berenji remembers a conversation she once had with a friend about religion in which he declared, "That musical instrument is my God. They cannot take away my God."
Berenji loves teaching, and finds positive interactions with her students to be one of the most rewarding aspects of what she does.
"I mean, each time they dance I start crying because I see myself in them, and I see that, okay, this line of culture is being passed down to other people," she says.
Through her work, Berenji is also able to help people experience a culture that they might not otherwise be exposed to and break down misconceptions using dance as a tool.
"A lot of [people]don't even know what Persian dance is or where Iran is sometimes. They associate the Middle East as being just one thing, not knowing that there's so many different cultures within it, so many different languages, so many different dances. And especially with Persian dance, I mean, a lot of the people when you say Persian, they think it's a form of exotic belly dance I really think the West is slowly getting to know who we really are. It's a form of understanding; this is who we are. It's not what you see on TV."
Berenji has kept her connection to Persian culture alive by returning to Iran at least once a year to visit, and collect costume materials that she might need for the dance collective.
Just a few months ago, she traveled to Iran with another American dancer, and visited a small village. The people in the village were performing a dance, one that Berenji and her companion were familiar with. When Berenji's companion began to join in, the people of the village were shocked,
"Suddenly everybody just backed out, watching this American woman doing this dance. They couldn't even believe it, and one lady just sat and started crying. She came and hugged me."
Berenji had a similar experience in a small village where she asked a woman to make a number of skirts for the company. When she learned the skirts were for her dancers in America, the woman was astounded.
"She was so excited she literally sat down, I mean, this one woman in this poor, little village-she finished them all, I think 11 skirts within 40 hours. And she had no sleep," Berenji recalls. Before Berenji left, the woman asked that she send a picture of the dancers wearing her skirts. Upon receiving the photo, the woman had it framed and now shows it proudly to anyone who visits.
It was those Iranian skirts that the Alaskan Simorgh Dance Company wore as they practiced the traditional basket dance, which opened their most recent show.
As the audience settled into their meals, the program began. Divided into four parts, attendees witnessed incredibly skilled dancing and breathtaking costumes. In one startling performance female dancer Laman Hendricks emerged dressed in attire fit for a 19th Century Georgian gentleman, and performed a dance normally done only by men. Her movements were precise and rigorous, her legs moving in a rhythmic, marching step. She completed the dance by ripping off her wig to reveal long flowing hair, prompting shouts and cheers from the audience. Benoit performed a dance of her own choreography, dressed in a long purple dress with a wide skirt. Attached to her back and arms were wings made of a sheer material of blue, green, and purple, which rippled as she spun.
But perhaps most astounding of all was Berenji's performance of a dance symbolizing the birth of the Simorgh. The performance began with Berenji on the ground. As she rose, she began to spin, faster and faster, moving her hands, her head, her hair, all in circles, in an almost trance-like state, never ceasing to spin until the dance concluded-a dizzying feat to say the least.
The final dance of the evening depicted the rebirth of the Simorgh. In it, each dancer represented a different bird. As legend has it, the birds gathered, and decided to embark on a journey to seek out the Simorgh, each with something to gain. Eventually, when they at last set out, they find themselves flying over a body of water. Airborne, they look down, catching a glimpse of their own reflection. It is then that they discover that the Simorgh is not a mythical bird apart from themselves, but the force they become when they work together in unity.
For the members of the Simorgh Dance Company, it is this message of unity and togetherness that they hope to relay to their audiences.
"I think if you look deep down in Persian dance you realize how peaceful and unified it is. Everything within Persian dance at the end, it's always in a circle, and the circle is a sign of unity," says Berenji. "I think that's what Persian dance is-to bring everyone together in unity."