The Triumph of the Behavior Nannies

There was a time when dancing was a fairly intimate business, when one and one’s partner did cling and sway to the beat. But that was before ballroom skill and the fox trot were consigned to the ancient history museum. And before dancing became a trance-like solitaire of individuals punching the air and stamping on the floor as if they were putting out a carpet fire.

Of course tango has survived as an explicitly sexy dance form, but it’s an isolated specialty now, a job niche for instructors with slicked-back hair, a fad that may sink slowly into oblivion as magic realism and all things trendily South American probably will.

Still, since so little dancing today has anything to do with tightly joined bodies, why do the strictly religious go into hissy fits at the mention of it? Haven’t they noticed that you jostle up against more bodies on a crowded city sidewalk or the doors of a subway train than you would on a dance floor? Is it the music? Do the puritans think the thumping rhythms suggest copulation?

Down deep, what the behavior nannies hate is fun. Not long ago a group of young Iranian women ran into big trouble with the Tehran thought police when they got together to squirt one another with water guns. As if that weren’t pagan enough, they were laughing. Anyone in a right-minded theocracy knows that fun and laughter are the devil’s ushers.

These truths take me back to the Iran I once knew, to my days in Tehran at the time of the shah, when there was a club called the Plantation which would make modern Istanbul’s roaring nightclubs seem like library reading rooms. You saw next to no chadors on the city’s main drag, Takhte Jamshid, in those days. To see them or slit-visored women dressed in black, you needed to go to Qum and the provinces. Among Tehran’s well-off, especially the well-off of North Tehran, it was fun, fun, fun. Men walked down the street with roses behind their ears. There was a fin de siècle flamboyance in the air. Granted, the well-dressed men of Savak, the shah’s secret police, were watching, and could damn you with a dossier note; and watching them from backstreet mosques and the alleys of the bazaars were the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was making tapes and biding his time in a Paris suburb.

In my mind, I go back, too, to Khomeini’s time, after the shah’s fall, when fun began to stop and frivolity was called to a halt — almost. In a government ministry corridor one day a frowning young woman in a chador came up to me and broke a half-smile: “Don’t shake my hand. Who won last weekend, Michigan or Purdue?”

Another time I stood chatting on a speakers’ platform with someone less likely to be keen on American sports, Ali Khamenei. He was then in his seventh year as president of the Islamic Republic. We had an affable talk. He knew I was American, but said nothing about the support the United States had thrown behind Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, which was just then winding to an end. When the translator told him I had turned my ankle trying to jump across the Stars and Stripes painted over the floor at the entrance of my hotel, something like a smile crossed his face. It may have been indigestion. There had been a meal. We shook hands.

The man I spoke to on that platform is now God’s messenger on earth. Ali Khamenei’s metamorphosis and the force field of awe around him are confounding things, proof of the power of belief. By himself today, clear of his aides, I imagine Iran’s supreme leader would still be the stern, reserved man I met, two decades older and probably more locked into his role, but patently mortal.

I doubt that dancing has ever entered his mind. The shah never danced; it would have been common. He was an emperor. I’ll bet that the young woman who came up to me for football news in the ministry that day had done some dancing at Michigan before she returned home. Does she smile when she remembers it?

Richard Reid is a retired U.N. official and university lecturer living in Istanbul.

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