This warm February evening we were walking down the streets in one of the areas in Shahrak-e Garb, a district in northwest Tehran, known for it’s “modernity” and readiness to embrace gharbzadegi – so called “poisonous influence of the West” – as well as some sort of self-imposed isolation from less fortunate areas of Tehran.
You can only guess what’s going on inside those compounds. Outside one home, a girl in colorful rusari, barely covering her long brown hair, and in loose manto, turned around as we rang the doorbell. “Eh, you came to dance too, right? I’m here for the first time,” she said.
"You can only guess what’s going on inside those compounds"Familiar vibes of passionate Latin dance reached us as soon as we went out of the elevator. The doors were open. Armchairs and sofas has been removed or placed near the walls to create an open space for dancers. Unlike similar events outside Iran, the room was full of light and that atmosphere of intimacy and relaxation, common for salsa evenings elsewhere, was gone. Those most daring danced while others just watched.
A limited choice of drinks (vodka, whiskey or aragh – drinks which are the easiest to order from dealers of this forbidden pleasure in Iran) was put on a table in the corner of the room. From time to time, dancers or those who watched them would come to the table and pour themselves some vodka or aragh, mixed with juice or tonic.
Unlike a few years ago, parties like this one are less vulnerable to possible police intrusion – on the condition that young people keep the volume and noise on a reasonable level, and refrain from wild patio discos on the top floors. Before, however, police would raid any house, even in securely guarded residential complexes around Shahrak-e Gharb. But nowadays everything seems relatively calm. I noticed some people across the street having a loud party in the courtyard of the heavily protected mansion while “green” (crime) police, who were stationed just in the top of Iranzamin street seemed to pay very little attention to such “deviant” behavior.
Since last summer, after the presidential election, with a supposedly more flexible president in office, authorities have slightly relaxed their iron fist on the throat of a frustrated nation. In times of economic difficulties the government decided it’s easier to let people party to soften their anger and desperation.
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A boy and girl in the room were performing capoeira, the famous Brasilian dance. Tonight there were a few performances – capoeira and salsa. People formed couples, occasionally changing partners.
“I started dancing a couple of years ago. My cousin, who was living in the UK, was very passionate about the dance,” one male guest told me. “We went on holidays to Turkey, where she was attending some salsa festival. I knew nothing about it at that point… I visited it and I loved it. Ever since I have been going on varieties of festivals, workshops…Mostly in Turkey or Dubai. The salsa scene here is very limited… I’ve been trying for a visa to UK for almost a year, but with no success so far.”
“Every time I come back I can’t dance! It lets me down,” he finished.
One of the girls joins our conversation. “You might have heard how famous the Iranian art scene is…despite all the restrictions our artists and filmmakers are most talented in the whole Middle East! I have always wanted to become an actress, but something happened last year and I had to quit the school… I’m dreaming of a career in dancing now, I am salsa teacher here and I hope to move abroad to teach or perform elsewhere.”
“Atmosphere is tense sometimes…Hard to ignore this feeling of guilt, since dance and any signs of joy are not welcome in this country,” she continued. “You know, several days ago in one of the events a stranger pretending to be policemen rung the doorbell! My heart has literally sunk as he entered the room. But he had no police ID…so he just left when I paid him. A hundred thousand tomans.”
“Every time I come back I can’t dance!"The salsa underground scene in Tehran is quite small and many of those who attend the gatherings know each other. Some people were introduced to this hidden space through friends, others ended up here after taking Spanish language courses. In fact, there are no organized classes; people just come to each other’s houses, sometimes holding occasional classes. Not long time ago several Latin American embassies offered dancing classes, but it has never gained popularity among Tehranis.
Social dance gatherings or workshops are gradually becoming famous for their “artistic” spirit as opposed to the typical home parties, where enormous amounts of alcohol and loud music act as main entertainment. This is clearly an indicator of educated youth’s exhaustion of “alcohol parties” as the sole source of enjoyment. On the other hand, constant fear of being caught and a need to literally hide does not exactly allow those young people to develop their aspirations in the way they would want to. Additionally, irregularity of gatherings and the absence of qualified teachers affect the way people dance, preventing them from moving their passion into professional level. That leaves them with dancing as a hobby. But in today’s Tehran, no matter Rouhani’s moderate nature, this is an important first step.