“One, Two, Three; Step, Swing” Armenian Dance Across Generations
I am toddling in the dance line, holding tightly to the hands of my grandmother and grandfather. It’s after a Sunday dinner, and we are dancing to Armenian tunes played on the phonograph in my living room. My grandparents were from the provinces of Kharpert, Cesaria, and Sepastia in the historic Armenian lands of Anatolia, and they brought with them the dance styles of their towns in the “old country.”
To me, Armenian dancing evokes memories of good food and a loving family.
As a cultural educator and a dancer trained in various forms, I am curious about this history and evolution of Armenian dance traditions. Over the centuries of invasion, the destruction of much of our material culture has made it difficult to study Armenian dance historically. Dance traditions are often ephemeral, particularly ethnic dance forms of refugees and ethnic minorities. So exploring, discovering, and recovering my ancestral dance tradition is especially rewarding for me.
From the “Old Country”
There are two distinct styles of dance, “Western Armenian” or Anatolian, and “Eastern Armenian” or Caucasian. (For more on Armenian dance history, read “Dancing Armenian in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Beyond” on the Festival Blog.) Most Armenian immigrants in the United States in the early twentieth century came from Anatolia, so Armenian American folk dance styles were Anatolian.
One of the first Armenian American dance ensembles was the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York, formed in 1937 initially to represent Armenia at international festivals in the New York region. Recently, a descendent of one of the members of this group gave me part of their archives as a gift—what a treasure!
Six boxes arrived in the mail filled with yellowing envelopes and albums, smelling of must and old paper. Inside I found their rehearsal and staging notes, photographs, performance flyers, and printed programs. The society collected and performed over twenty-five different regional dances, particularly from Sepastia, Van, and Garin. As a performance-oriented group, they only collected dances that could be presented on stage. Unfortunately, those deemed too boring or simple were ignored and subsequently lost.
Across the Ocean
Armenian dancing was always part of my childhood. Every summer, on the weekends, we went to the Armenian picnics held in Maynard, Massachusetts. The Armenians from Kharpert and the Armenians from Caeseria were always trying to outdo each other—who could host the best picnic? There was always the smoky smell of shish kebab cooking, with pilaf, salad, other Armenian treats, and bottles of Fanta. A live band would play on the wooden “band shell” with a paved dance “floor” in front. Families, friends, and acquaintances all danced together.
My parents met at one of the Armenian formal dances they attended as young adults in the 1940s and 1950s in Boston, Hartford, and New York. Some of the dances were held jointly with the Greek American community. “We learned their dances,” my mother noted. At intergenerational dance parties today, older Armenian bands will still play the Greek tunes (Miserloo, Tsamiko, and sometimes a Kalamatiano), and many of the older generations still dance them or the Armenian adaptations. In other cities, both in the United States and the old country, Armenians shared dances with neighboring cultures, such as Laz Bar (a Black Sea dance), Sheikhani (similar to an Assyrian dance), and the Michigan Hop (similar to a Bulgarian dance).
Growing up, I attended Armenian dances in the Boston area with my younger cousins and learned the current repertoire of Armenian American party dances. Some were the old village styles, but most of them were adapted by Armenian American youth.
Years later, on a trip to Armenia with Smithsonian colleagues, we happened upon a children’s dance lesson in the courtyard of an ancient monastery. I recognized the dance and, at the urging of my colleagues, joined the circle. The children were surprised! And I was too—it turns out that their teacher learned Papuri from dance leader Gagik Ganosyan in Armenia, who had learned the dance from Susan Lind-Sinanian from Massachusetts. It was an amazing example of a dance traveling over and back across an ocean.
On my trips to Armenia, I visited and took classes with noted dance leaders, including the legendary Artoush Karapetyan, as well as Gagik Karapetyan, Gagik Ganosyan, and Edik Khachatryan. I also learned their philosophies about teaching Armenian folk dances to youth and young adults. One focused on artistic expression, another on preserving old dances while making them exciting to new generations, and another on providing positive activities for underprivileged children. Every town and village seemed to have a folk dance troupe of some kind. In fact, in 2005, Minister of Culture Hovik Hoveyan complained, “There are too many Armenians dancing”!
When my son was a baby, I joined the Antranig Armenian Dance Ensemble of New York and New Jersey. For a few months each year, we had the privilege of studying with Gagik Karapetyan, the director of the State Dance Ensemble in Armenia. We performed many of the Caucasian Armenian dances as well as “Gago’s” original choreographies.
My son grew up at the rehearsals, first on my back, later playing and watching the dances, and finally performing in Lincoln Center with other children of ensemble members. By the time he was three years old, he had been to Armenian picnics at Camp Hayastan, eaten Grandma’s good Armenian food, and looked forward to games and dancing with his friends in Antranig, so when I took him to see the ocean for the first time, he exclaimed, “Mommy, this is really Armenian!”
I was puzzled for a moment, and then I laughed. He thought “Armenian” was an adjective meaning “a good time.”
When I discovered YouTube in 2006 shortly after its inception, I searched for Armenian dance and was astonished to find a group in Dagestan, a Russian republic separated from Armenia by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Shortly after, I found a video of a wonderful Armenian French group doing dances similar to those I had learned in Antranig. I was amazed! Before the era of social media, most Armenian Americans had little knowledge of the existence of diaspora communities worldwide. Now, people around the world can share and adapt regional dance styles.
Most Armenian Americans were told growing up that there were no Armenians living in Turkey. But when I traveled to Istanbul in 2015, I was thrilled to join a dance rehearsal in the inconspicuous Armenian community center. I hoped I would see the dances of my grandparents in their true form, but they too are now doing the dances from the Republic of Armenia.
Here in Washington, D.C., a group of adult dancers called the Arax Armenian Dance Ensemble, named for a river that winds through the old country, performed from 2004 to 2014. As the director, I was always amazed at the composition of the group: some dancers were born in the United States and their grandparents came from Anatolia in 1915, one from Armenia, and the rest from Armenian communities in Canada, France, Russia, Turkey, Cypress, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. It was truly the diaspora reunited! Since their grandparents came from several regions in historic Armenia, we strove to present dances from each members’ place of origin.
In more recent years, as the director of the Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble (arev means “sun”), I have realized that because we seem to be unique in our presentation of Anatolian Armenian dances, we are focusing on preserving and performing these dances. While not as flashy as staged Caucasus dances, we hope to play a vital role in maintaining the diversity of our intangible heritage. And we are excited to do so this summer at Smithsonian Folklife Festival—hope to see you there!
Carolyn Rapkievian is serving as an Armenian dance advisor for the 2018 Folklife Festival and is assistant director for interpretation and education at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.