Iranian dancer’s traumas and triumphs told in life story


When you visit Leili Tajadod Pritschet’s home for the first time and see framed photographs of her and the Shah of Iran on the wall, you might suspect that you have just met an extraordinary Holland neighborhood resident.

You’d be right.

On Saturday, Nov. 7 and Sunday, Nov. 8, 30 performers presented “Hidden Yearning,” the story of Pritschet’s life, in a multi-media dance concert at the University of St. Thomas. Described as a “tapestry of Persian dance, music, video and the Sufi poetry of Rumi,” as well as being a true story of resilience and recovery from trauma, the show includes dancers from the Silk Road Dance Company from Washington, D.C. According to publicist Carstens Smith, BBC (British Broadcasting Company) Persia recently interviewed Pritschet and Silk Road artistic director Laurel Victoria Grey about the collaboration.

The background

Pritschet, who is Iranian, was sent by her wealthy family to study at the London College of Dance and Drama in England in the 1960s. Her instructors included Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She graduated in 1966 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in dance education, and became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Dance. She returned home in 1967 and became the principal dancer with the Iranian National Ballet Company, performing for the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, emperor of Iran, and his wife, Empress Farah.

Pritschet also formed the Iranian National Folklore Institute and became a television personality, producing and starring in children’s programs on National Iranian Radio and Television.

“Once upon a blue moon,” she said, “I was famous. I became a soloist young in life. Everybody knew me. Even when I covered [by veils] the taxi drivers recognized my voice. We started the television programs when television was just coming to Iran. The programs were very expensive, but very popular.”

She taught at The Tehran American School for 10 years, from 1969 to 1979.

She earned a Master of Arts degree in education from Michigan State University in 1978.

In 1979, her world fell apart. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces toppled the Shah’s regime; Khomeini’s police officers took her prisoner with the American hostages at the U.S. Embassy.

“Because the religious extremists saw my assistance from Americans, and because they viewed dance as evil and anti-Islamic, I was tortured so that I could not walk or, of course, dance,” Pritschet said. “I was taken with a friend to face a firing squad. She was killed. I was not.” Pritschet said she does not know why she was allowed to live. Eventually, through the help of friends, she managed to escape and come to America.

Life in Minnesota

Pritschet emigrated to Minnesota to join her brother, who was living in Minneapolis. She hired an immigration attorney to appeal for political asylum. She went to the Center for Victims of Torture for help assimilating into her new life. When her case was finished, her attorney, Leo Pritschet, asked her to dinner. According to her, she said, “Do you need more money from me?” He said, “No, this is a date.” Soon after, he proposed; they have been married for 16 years.

Since she left Iran, Pritschet has had many surgeries on her feet and legs, which the terrorists mutilated when they tortured her. “They cut my feet and crushed my knees. I am still having a hard time walking,” she said.

“The torturers don’t just hurt you,” she added. “They crush your brain.”

In 1992, Pritschet completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in theater management from Columbia University in New York.

Pritschet said that the September 11, 2001, tragedy gave her terrible nightmares, because she thought that the atrocities which had befallen Iran had now come to her new country, the U.S. The attack–which she said nearly caused her to have a nervous breakdown–compelled her to begin her dance work again.

In 2004, she choreographed and directed “Women Behind the Veil,” and choreographed Kurdish tribal and Baba-Karam modern traditional dances at the University of Minnesota (U of M). She performed in Intermedia Arts’ “Trapeze and Circus Branch Cabaret” with Wicked Sister Dance Theater in Hopkins, and performed with Voice of Sepharad in “Peace in the House” at the Southern Theater. She choreographed “Weeping Willow” at the Center for Independent Artists, and choreographed Joel Sass’s “Arabian nights” at the U of M in 2007. She taught Persian ballet and dance classes at the Ritz Theater in Northeast.

Pritschet is also a visual artist, who displayed her paintings in the Art of Recovery exhibits at the State Arts Board in 2006-2007.

She said she wrote “Hidden Yearning” (Niaz-E-Nahan) in memory of her late mother, Afsar Azari, whom she was able to bring to the U.S.