I am originally from Iran, where traditionally we follow the Gregorian Calendar and for us, the Spring Equinox (21 March) marks the beginning of the year. Marking the seasons is very important in this calendar, and for many Central Asian countries, Persian New Year is one of the biggest events of the year.
In March 2020, I was invited by Voluntary Action Coventry (VAC)’s Chat Central project to speak about some of the customs and traditions associated with Persian New Year. Since Persian New Year falls in Spring, much of the symbolism is similar to the things you might associate with Easter – themes of nature, new life and respect for our planet.
As part of my presentation, I introduced the audience to some traditional Persian music and dance, and the group attending the event enjoyed it so much that they asked if I could teach them some of the dances. So, with the help of Chat Central, I began leading online classes during lockdown.
I’ve been dancing ever since I was a child, when my mum decided it would be good for us to learn for lots of different reasons – learning traditions, meeting people, developing a respect and appreciation for different cultures and to support our mental and physical fitness.
Similarly, when I started up the classes, I found that there were a range of people joining for all sorts of different reasons. For some, it was a chance to learn something new or stay active at home; for others, it was a way to socialise, tackling some of the isolation they felt in lockdown.
As the classes grew, it became clear that different participants had different needs – we had a range of neurodiverse people and people with mobility issues interested in taking part. We even had people who had developed breathing difficulties as a result of contracting covid.
So I decided to use the Unlimited commission to start a course that would be accessible to anyone at any level, breaking each of the movements down and showing people different ways of doing things, so that they could find out what was most comfortable for them – or even just watch if they preferred not to actively follow along.
I started these sessions in December, and my aim was really to break down barriers to dance and make it feel like something anyone could take part in. As we went through I would explain to people some of the physical benefits of different types of movement – what was good for circulation or shaping, for example.
But perhaps even more important were the mental health benefits. At the end of each session, I made sure to build in time for the group to talk and share some of the challenges they’d been facing, and you could see how much people’s confidence grew over time. When we first started, a lot of people kept their cameras off, but gradually as they came to feel more comfortable, they started turning them on and joining in with the discussion.
Some participants even started to request we try specific types of dance, and I invited them to lead some of the sessions themselves. I saw myself more as a facilitator than a teacher – my aim was for us all to be creative together and learn from each other, and I definitely felt the benefits of the sessions myself as well. I’d been feeling quite lonely at times, but leading the classes gave me something to look forward to and helped to combat the lockdown blues.
Even though the Unlimited funding for the project has finished now, we’ve decided to continue with the sessions. I really hope that, eventually, as restrictions ease, we’ll be able to do a performance together.