Transplanted Rose: New memoir celebrates a childhood in Iran


By Elizabeth Kiem

Nesta Ramazani's life has been full of adventure and paradox, but to hear her tell it, the most incongruous detail in her biography is that she learned to dance in Iran.

"Dance as a performing art was never acceptable to Iranians. It was done only by people of questionable reputation," she recalled recently, sitting amid the Blue Ridge vistas that have framed her home for 50 years.

Born to an English mother and an Iranian father, Ramazani enjoyed an exceedingly multicultural upbringing. In the early days of Iran's modernization, when a mysterious American woman with a dazzling command of Persian began fishing around for talented young dancers, teenaged Nesta was an easy recruit.

Never mind that the intrepid American was affiliated with the U.S. Office of War Information– she had gained the ear and backing of the Shah's sister and was firmly in favor of chaperones for her dancers. In short order, Ramazani was part of Iran's first national ballet company.

The story of her short life as a dancer is the subject of her recent book, The Dance of the Rose and the Nightingale, published this year by Syracuse University Press.

Her mother Christian mother and her father Zoroastrian, Nesta Ramazani sketches her personal life story against the backdrop of an Islamic society.

"I found that all the threads that reflect the richness of Iranian culture are threads that blend in my own personal life."

The temporality of the world described in The Dance of the Rose and Nightingale enhances the inherent romance of the tale. Like the White Russian émigré from whom she took ballet lessons as a child, Ramazani left her home amid political upheaval that would eventually obliterate an entire society. Quitting the dance company in the middle of an international tour, the young dancer eventually moved to America with her new husband, R K. "Ruhi" Ramazani, a handsome scholar who had accompanied the troupe as the dancers' tutor.

A highly sought-out Mideast expert, Ramazani is UVA professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs. The dance company, however, dissolved soon after the tour, when the singular American woman reconnected with a former guru in India and suffered a nervous breakdown.

In addition to her memoirs, Ramazani has written a cookbook and numerous papers on the role of women in Islamic societies. She frets about the lack of Persian culture in her grandchildren's life and appreciates the arrival of more Iranians to the area in the past decade. Her gracious, unhurried demeanor is unruffled even when talk turns to politics and pulls her to the seat of her chair.

As for the dance, it never left her. She still teaches a fusion of classical ballet and Persian dance.

"A number of students have been with me for many, many years," she says with a smile. "We're sort of growing old together."