Assistant Professor

Heather Rastovac Akbarzadeh is an interdisciplinary scholar-artist whose research builds upon over two decades as a dancer-choreographer, artistic director, curator, and dramaturg among diasporic SWANA communities (SWANA = South West Asia and North Africa, oftentimes referred to as the Middle East). Heather’s research engages transnational feminist critiques of war and Euro-American empire through examining diasporic SWANA performances of refusal and futurity that are choreographically oriented toward undermining neocolonial structures of seeing, feeling, and knowing the “Middle East.”

As a first-generation, community college-transfer undergraduate student, Heather was a McNair scholar at the University of Washington, where she earned her B.A. in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures (Persian language concentration), with minors in Dance and Anthropology. Heather earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies from UC Berkeley (with a designated emphasis in Gender & Women’s Studies), followed by a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship in Dance Studies at Stanford University (2016 – 2018) and a UC President’s postdoctoral fellowship in Asian American Studies at UC Davis (2018 – 2020).

Heather’s first book project, entitled Choreographing the Iranian Diaspora: Dance, Spectatorship, and the Politics of Belonging, is a multi-sited ethnography that employs movement- and discourse-analysis to examine choreographic content, media coverage, and audience reception of Iranian dancers residing in North America and Western Europe in the decades following 9/11 and the U.S.-led “War on Terror.” The book queries the cultural, political, aesthetic, and representational challenges these artists face, and it investigates how these artists choreographically negotiate and contest conditions of belonging and exclusion. Choreographing the Iranian Diaspora demonstrates how dance is an essential mode through which diasporic Iranians produce diasporic affiliations, enact cultural and legal forms of citizenship, and contest dominant stereotypes that construct them as racially Other.

Heather’s second book project examines SWANA performances of solidarity, joy, and liberation as feminist critiques of (neo)colonial-state violence and displacement. The book analyzes choreographic collaborations across SWANA geographies that unearth shared colonial histories and generate liberatory embodied futures.

Heather’s bodies of performance work span almost thirty years, starting with political street performance in the U.S. and extending toward performances of classical and folkloric dances in diasporic SWANA (particularly Iranian American) communities, experimental dance-making in subcultural spaces, and full evening contemporary dance works on concert stages. Heather’s dance practice brings techniques from her Iranian dance training together with the DIY aesthetics and protest ethos from her early performance experiences and activism to create experimental, multimedia, and collaborative choreographies.

Website: www.heatherrastovac.com


Under Review. “We’ve Always Continued to Dance”: Interview with Khaneh-ye Raqs / Dance Center of Iran.” In Oxford Handbook of Dance Praxis, eds. Anurima Banerji, Royona Mitra, and Jasmine Johnson (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press).

2023 – “Contemporary Iranian Dance and the Diasporic Politics of Authenticity.” In Dance in the Persianate World: History, Aesthetics, and Performance, ed. Anthony Shay, 474 – 515 (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers)

2022 – “New Media Performance and (AR)ticulations of the Self: A Conversation with Amir Baradaran.” In Performing Iran: Cultural Identity and Theatrical Performance, ed. Babak Rahimi, 181 – 195 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishing)

2020 – “Do Iranian Dancers Need Saving? Savior Spectatorship and the Production of Iranian Dancing Bodies as ‘Objects of Rescue’.” In Futures of Dance Studies, eds. Susan Manning, Janice Ross, and Rebecca Schneider, 453 – 470 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

2018 – “‘I’ve danced my whole life, but none of that is useful at all’: Netflix’s We Speak Dance (2018), Vulnerability and Collaborative Critiques.” With Melissa Blanco Borelli, Elena Benthaus, Claudia Brazalle, Royona Mitra, Cristina Rosa, Hanna Jarvinen, Celena Monteiro, Heather Rastovac-Akbarzadeh, and Meiver De la Cruz. In Conversations Across the Field of Dance Studies: The Popular as the Political. Dance Studies Association, Vol. XXVVIII: 54 – 60.

2018 – Review of Dance and Gender in Modern Iran: Biopolitics on Stage by Ida Meftahi, in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 14, no. 1: 83 – 85.

2009 – “Contending with Censorship: The Underground Music Scene in Urban Iran.” Intersections: A Journal of the Comparative History of Ideas 10, no. 2: 59 – 82.

Conference Presentations, Invited Talks, and Lecture-Demos (Select):

2023 – Dance Studies Association (London, Virtual), “Choreographing Liberation: Dance and Futurity in Iran’s Woman Life Freedom Uprising.” Co-organizer of panel: The Cultural and Geo-Politics of Dancing Bodies Across Transnational SWANA (South West Asia and North Africa) Geographies

2023 – The Iranian Diaspora in Global Perspective, UCLA Center Near Eastern Studies & SFSU Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies Joint Conference (Los Angeles, CA), “The Pleasant Pain: Performing ‘New Generation’ Iranian Immigrant Bittersweetness in Aisan Hoss’s Dance-Theatre.”

2022 – Dance Studies Association (Vancouver B.C, Virtual), “Un/Yielding Transience: Performing Transcultural Explorations of Immigration and Homelessness.” Lecture-Demo/Workshop co-developed with choreographer Aisan Hoss.

2021 – Dance Studies Association (Rutgers University, Virtual), “Queering the Gaze, Activating the Audience: Gender and Sexuality in Diasporic Iranian and ‘Oriental’ Dances.” Lecture-Demo/Workshop co-developed with artist-scholar Cynthia Ling Lee (Associate Professor, Department of Performance, Play & Design, UC Santa Cruz).

2021 – Raqsvareh Festival/Dance Center of Iran (Invited talk, Virtual), “Do (Female) Iranian Dancers Need Saving?: The Euro-American Production of Savior Spectatorship”

2020 – American Studies Association, “Protest in/and the Popular in South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA).” Roundtable. Canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

2020 – Kenyon College (Invited talk, Virtual), “Race in Motion” speaker series in Dance and Performance Studies, “Choreographing the Iranian Diaspora: Dance, Spectatorship, and the War on Terror”

2020 – UC Berkeley’s Center for Race & Gender, Thursday Forums, “Choreographing Transnational Modernities: Imbrications of Race & Gender in Dance Performance and Spectatorship.” Co-organized panel with Usha Iyer (Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University)

2019 – University of California, Riverside, Department of Dance (Invited Talk), “Threat, Defense, and Absence: Ali Moini’s My Paradoxical Knives and the U.S. ‘Muslim Travel Ban’”

2019 – University of California, Los Angeles, Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance (Invited Talk), “Do Iranian Dancers Need Saving? Savior Spectatorship and the Production of Iranian Dancers as ‘Objects of Rescue’”

2019 – National Women’s Studies Association (San Francisco, CA), “Queering the Neoliberal Gaze: Sensorial, Sonicity, and Islamic Repertoire in Aisan Hoss’s The Pleasant Pain.” Organizer of panel: “Queering Il/legibility: Performing Otherwise Worlds”

2019 – American Studies Association (Honolulu, HI), “Transaction, Temporality, and Queer Relationality: Amir Baradaran’s Marry Me to the End of Love.” In panel: “Visioning Radical Queer Futures: Transformative Practices of the Transnational Middle East”

2018 – Ev’ry Body This Time: A Sexuality Studies Conference (University of California, Berkeley), “Transaction and Queer Temporalities: Amir Baradaran’s Marry Me to the End of Love.” In panel: “Embodying Space: Towards A Queer Reading of Desire and Movement”

2018 – Association for Asian American Studies (San Francisco, CA), “Transaction and Queer Temporalities: Amir Baradaran’s Marry Me to the End of Love.” Organizer of panel: “West Asian American Performance, Art, and Politics”

2018 – University of California, Santa Cruz, Department of Theater Arts, Shahnameh and Beyond Symposium, Lecture and performance collaboration with Cynthia Ling Lee (Assistant Professor in Dance, UC Santa Cruz): “Bodies & Borders: Intercultural Exchanges between Kathak and Iranian Dance”

2018 – Stanford University, Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity – Emancipatory Performance and Racial Formation Faculty Network, “Do Iranian Dancers Need Saving? Savior Spectatorship and the Production of Iranian Dancers as ‘Objects of Rescue’”

2017 – American Society for Theatre Research (Atlanta, GA), “Choreographing the Sensorial-Affective of Iranian Émigré Oral Histories,” as part of the working group: “(Re)presenting Muslim Bodies of Performance”

2017 – Approaching Dance: Transdisciplinary Methodologies and Modalities of the Moving Body in Performance (CUNY, NYC), “Do Iranian Dancers Need Saving? Savior Spectatorship and the Production of Iranian Dancers as ‘Objects of Rescue’”

2016 – Congress on Research in Dance & Society of Dance History Scholars Joint Conference (Pomona College), “The Precarity of Enough-ness: Contemporary Iranian Dance & the Geo-Temporal Politics of Inclusion/Exclusion.” Co-organizer of panel: “Dancing the Vulnerable, Illegible, and/or Impossible Migrant/Diasporic Subject”

2016 – Popular Culture Association & American Culture Association Joint Conference (Seattle, WA),““Be Brave, Be Bold, Be Free”: Iranian Dancer as Object of Rescue in the Film Desert Dancer

2015 – Congress on Research in Dance & Society of Dance History Scholars Joint Conference (Athens, Greece),“Does Iranian Dance Need Saving? The Politics of Preservation in the 1st International Iranian Dance Conference 2012.” Awarded the SDHS Graduate Student Travel Award

2014 – American Society for Theatre Research (Baltimore, MD), “Queering Diasporic Temporalities in the Performance Works of Amir Baradaran.” Part of the working group: “Avant-Gardes, Otherwise: Performance, Aesthetics, and Experimentation in the Undercommons”