Viral dance trend frustrates leaders in Iran, where dancing is banned

Viral dance trend frustrates leaders in Iran, where dancing is banned

December 18, 2023

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A new form of protest against the government is rocking Iran: a viral dance craze set to an upbeat folk song where crowds clap and chant the rhythmic chorus: “oh, oh, oh, oh.”

In cities across Iran, men and women of all ages are gyrating their hips, swirling their arms in the air and chanting the song’s catchy lines, according to videos posted on social media, television news channels such as BBC Persian, and Iranians interviewed.

People are dancing on the streets, in shops, at sport stadiums, in classrooms, malls, restaurants, gyms, parties and everywhere else they congregate. In Tehran, traffic was stopped in a major highway tunnel for an impromptu dance party to the song. Young women, hair uncovered and flowing, dance in parks, and young men performed a choreographed hip-hop dance.

“It’s obvious that joining this dance trend sends a strong message,” Mohammad Aghapour, 32, a DJ who goes by the professional name DJSonami, said in an interview from Tehran. “It’s a way of protesting and demanding our freedom and happiness.”

In most countries, dancing and singing in public would not be considered taboo. But in Iran, dancing in public, especially by women and between men and women, is banned. Although the rule is regularly defied, enforcing it has been arbitrary. Music, dancing and singing are deeply rooted in Iran’s culture, and attempts by Islamic clerics to take that away in their 43 years of rule have, by and large, failed.

But seldom has a single song and dance turned into a collective act of civil disobedience. It all started with an old man at a fish market in the northern city of Rasht in late November.

Dressed in a white suit, the man, Sadegh Bana Motejaded, 70, who owns a small market stall energetically swayed and bopped. He serenaded the crowd with a folk song and encouraged others to join in with some joyous noise – helheleh kon, velveleh kon. A small group of men clapped, shouting back the rhythmic chorus: “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh”.

Bana Motejaded is known around town by his nickname, Booghy, derived from the Persian word for megaphone. For years, he had a side gig at the soccer stadium, where he carried a megaphone, walking the bleachers and energising the fans by honking loudly, according to videos on his page and local media reports.

“My reason for dancing is to make people happy,” Bana Motejaded told a local television reporter this week. “I only want people to be happy and to change their mood.”

The video of him dancing and singing at the market went viral when Aghapour reposted a remix of the song with techno beats with video of the original dance from a local blogger who had appeared in the video and posted it on his Instagram page.

Then came the crackdown. Local police in Rasht announced on December 7 that they had arrested a group of 12 men who appeared in the video and shut down their Instagram pages and removed the video from several websites.

On Bana Motejaded’s Instagram page, then with about 128,000 followers, an emblem of the judiciary appeared in the place of his profile photo. All his posts had disappeared, and instead, a single post from the judiciary read that “this page has been shut down for creating criminal content” and that the person who had engaged in the activity “has been dealt with”.

A person close to Bana Motejaded who was familiar with the details of the arrests and asked that his name not be published for his own security said in a telephone interview from Rasht that the local intelligence division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard had summoned the men and then interrogated them for many hours. He said they were blindfolded, beaten, threatened with legal action and forced to sign a pledge that they would never again sing and dance in public.

He said Bana Motejaded was detained for several hours and accused of instigating against the government. As part of the crackdown, police swarmed street musicians performing in Rasht, arrested some and confiscated their instruments, he said.

The nationwide uprising, led by women, that erupted across Iran in 2022 has, by and large, been crushed with violence, but protests endure in other, creative ways, such as the Ashura religious participants’ changing of the words of religious ballads to reflect their disdain with the Islamic Republic’s rulers and the current dance trend.

News of the arrests spread like wildfire across Iran, fuelling outrage. Many people posted angry messages on social media accusing the government of being at war with happiness. They said authorities were quick to round up citizens for no other crime than joy but failed to arrest officials accused of rampant corruption.

“The regime has no common sense,” said Mahan, a 50-year-old physician in the city of Rasht, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution. “It has become like an authoritarian father, unable to protect and guide his family and resorting to violence as the only way to feel relevant and powerful.”

People mobilised, filming themselves dancing to the song everywhere, mimicking Bana Motejaded’s dance moves. They posted the videos on social media and circulated them widely on applications such as WhatsApp, calling it the “happiness campaign”.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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