Central Asia and the Middle East

Sepida Farshadi's thoughts were thousands of miles away. She was thinking about centuries of history, her history. As she listened to Michelle Obama's introduction, she thought about how they celebrated this time, the Persian new year, Norooz, for over 2,000 years. Even when the Persians were conquered by the Arabs and later by the Mongols, and even after the revolution in 1979, it had always survived. And now the president and the first lady had invited her into their home to celebrate the new year.

She began to cry. She panicked and began wiping away the tears; she had to go on stage soon, and her makeup was running.

"This is really exciting, isn't it?" Silk Road Dance Company founder Laurel Gray, asked Farshadi, trying to comfort her. She knew it was more than excitement, but she also knew the regret Farshadi would feel if she did not perform. She could see that this day meant a lot to Farshadi. It meant a lot to her too.

Ekaterina Negrouk strikes a pose during a rehearsal of a Tajik dance called Rapo. The dancers were rehearsing for a Tajik wedding where they were to perform in a few days. SHFWire photo by Jaelynn Grisso

Gray had always been drawn to the region - and the ideology - of the Silk Road. As a child, she listened to records of Russian composers inspired by the so-called "Orient," a term once used to refer to the area from North Africa to East Asia. She once painted a landscape of mosques and minarets in green, the color of Islam, although she didn't know about any of that at the time.

As she grew older, her passion materialized in new ways. She noticed a pull toward dance, especially to the way the folk dances reflected their culture, a culture she grew to love the more she learned about it.

So she studied it, in Russian, German and Swedish. She reached out to natives of the country she was focusing on and asked them to teach her how to dance. After a few years, she decided to open a studio.

Many years later, Farshadi sat in the audience of a performance of the Silk Road Dance Company. She went for the Persian dances, but it was an Afghani dance that stayed with her. The dancers solemnly swayed and spun, cupping candles in their hands.

Farshadi joined Gray's company and began learning traditional Persian dances, knowing she could never perform them in Iran. Public dance has been forbidden since the revolution, especially for women. Despite never learning or watching the dances as a child, she said feels a natural familiarity with the soft twists of the wrists and the large, sweeping arm movements.

At rehearsal, Farshadi pulled her braids through the strap of a glittering headpiece, the final part of her sparkling, pastel ensemble. The group was scheduled to perform at a Tajik wedding, and this was one of their last dress rehearsals. Her face was nearly white with stage make-up, making her hazel, almond-shaped eyes even more prominent.

Laurel Carey, closest, Courtney Smothers, Caroline Gimello, Anne Redfing, Kardn David and Katerina Negrouk practice a Persian dance called Aroosaki. The dance includes many spins and arm gestures, creating a smooth, flowing effect with the costumes. SHFWire photo by Jaelynn Grisso

"Eyebrows, I need more eyebrows!" Gray called out, inspecting each woman. They'll notice if the details are not right, she continued lecturing. "You might have to pencil them in more."

The details were critical for performances. Unlike other dance companies, she also had to know and navigate the politics. Her career began with teaching dances from Soviet-controlled territories during the Cold War, and it now includes teaching Middle Eastern dances in the era of the War on Terror.

Six years after she started the Silk Road Dance Company, the Kenned Center invited it to perform just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Gray had heard the plane crash into the Pentagon, and her uncertainty about which dances to perform was nearly overwhelming. She was particularly worried about a dance she had choreographed in which burqa-clad women use small, meaningful movements to convey restriction. She thought about pulling it.

When the dancers began, Gray made a mental note of the size of the audience. "There are way more of them than us," she thought. All she heard was silence.

"They understood. They understood." She paused, and then corrected herself. "They wanted to understand."

Watch: Dances show beauty of everyday life

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