LAHORE, Pakistan — In an auditorium at a luxury hotel here the other day, an artistic spectacle unfolded that once would have been unimaginable: Women and men danced together.
The occasion was International Dance Day, and to celebrate it, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts put on a cultural show in which young performers displayed different ethnic dance traditions. It is still rare in Pakistan to see any sort of public dancing that commingles the sexes, a legacy of the conservative Islamic policies imposed during the military rule of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq from 1978 to 1988.
Zia briefly banned dance but a delegation of male and female performers convinced him of the art form’s worth, according to Tauqir Nasir, who heads the Pakistan National Council of the Arts. Today, he said, the council is promoting the art form aggressively through workshops and grants.
Yet more than two decades after Zia’s death, “dance in all its varied forms [is] still treated with suspicion by many,” said an editorial in the Express Tribune newspaper that decried a lack of public events to mark April 29 as International Dance Day.
In Lahore, the artistic and cultural capital of Pakistan, arts officials say they are trying to keep classical dance alive in part as a bulwark against a creeping conservatism that views dance, especially those forms focusing on ecstatic expressions or trancelike states, as “unIslamic.”
“On a social level mullahs try to discourage and threaten the tradition, but they along with Zia never succeeded in permanently eliminating the tradition. It keeps coming back,” said Beena Jawad, a 58-year-old dancer and teacher of Kathak dance.
Kathak is a stylized form of classical dance featuring complex footwork and precise hand movements to tell a story; it evolved from Indian culture and the Mughul empire. Jawad’s Kathak dance students were among those who performed at the hotel event.
“Pakistan has very rich folk dance traditions,” said Sughra Sadaf, director of the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture. She is among those working to promote traditional dance from the diverse regions of Pakistan, including Balochi dance, Pashtun dance, Sindhi dance, and Bhangra, which is Punjabi in origin.
Even today, the mixing of men and women dancers on the same stage can cause surprise. At another Pakistan National Council of the Arts event in March in Islamabad, the program featured a troupe of men and women performing an illustration of the evolution of dance on the subcontinent.
The men wearing salwars and tunics twirled, arms extended, in the fashion of whirling dervishes. Women loosened their waist-length hair to perform during a Sufi dance.
At one point an audience member turned to another and said: “Men and women dancing on stage together. Imagine that.”
Chaudhry Asif, deputy director of the Lahore Arts Council, said he has never felt pressure from extremists or the government to cancel or postpone activities, “but sometimes we are compelled to do it.”
For example, dance classes were postponed after a recent bombing at the Lahore railway station resulted in two deaths and more than two dozen people injured.
But Jawad, the dance teacher, said an even greater threat to dance is poverty.
“Dance thrives in societies which are prosperous,” he said. “Pakistan is a weak, poor and destabilized country. . . . More than radicalization of society, the reason for waning interest in dance is economic conditions. If your belly is empty you can’t dance.”