by Laura Shannon
Many people feel something special
in Armenian dances, and in the passion, subtlety, and eloquence which they
embody. I hope this article will serve as an introduction to some of the
factors that make Armenian dances unique.
present-day Armenian republic is a small and extremely mountainous area
about the size of the state of Maryland (USA), with a population
of only 3.7 million. Formerly, Armenia covered a huge territory, including
the mountains of what are now Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the vast plateau
which extends from eastern Anatolia in Turkey to the southern Caucasus
and partly into Iran, Iraq and Syria. This great plateau is home to Mount
Ararat, the symbol of the Armenian nation and also a symbol of exile: its
breast-shaped profile dominates the view from Yerevan, Armenia's capital,
but the mountain itself is now in Turkish territory.
Anatolian plain is one of the world's oldest centres of civilisation. The
Armenians, descendants of a branch of Indo-Europeans, settled after the
fifth century B.C. and established the first Christian state in 301 C.E..
A strong cultural identity was established early on, largely thanks to
the invention of the Armenian alphabet in 406 C.E. Other inhabitants included
Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Assyrians and Turks. While this resulted in
an extremely rich and varied folklore, there was also constant strife among
the various peoples.
During the first World War, the long
history of pogroms and persecution by the Ottoman Turks erupted in a campaign
which led to the mass murder of over one and a half million Armenians between
1915 and 1922. These events were officially recognised as genocide by the
United Nations in 1985 and 1986, and by the European Parliament in 1987.
Turkey, however, still refuses to recognise the genocide.
Those Armenians who survived the
massacres and deportations were forced to flee from the Anatolian region.
In this diaspora, some went south to Syria and other Arab countries, some
north to what became Soviet Armenia in 1920, some east to Asia, some west
to Greece and the rest of Europe, and hundreds of thousands across the
Atlantic to North America, where there are significant expatriate communities
in Los Angeles, Fresno, Washington, and other cities.
in other immigrant communities, the exiled Armenians sought to reaffirm
their ethnic identity through dance and music. Traditional dancing is still
popular among expatriate Armenians, and has also been very successfully
`exported' to international folk dance groups and circle dance groups all
over the world. Generally, I place Armenian dances into four categories:
dances from Eastern Caucasian Armenia, from Western Anatolian Armenia,
from Greater Armenia, and diaspora dances. These categories may overlap
somewhat, but they give a broad picture of the landscape of Armenian dance
as I understand it. A general differentiation could also be made between
village folk dances and those which have been arranged or choreographed
by professional ensembles, as well as between the dances found in Armenia
today and those now danced mainly in expatriate communities.
Dances from Eastern
Caucasian Armenia is now the area of the tiny landlocked present-day republic
of Armenia. The energetic men's dance Jo Jon (a.k.a. Zhora Bar)
comes from Speetak in the north. Mom Bar, meaning `candle dance',
comes from the village of Maroon by Lake Sevan, and is traditionally the
last dance done at wedding parties. The candles are blown out at the end
of the dance, indicating to the guests that it is time to go home. Different
versions of Harsaneek, also originally a `mom' or candle dance,
come from various parts of the east, as do many exquisite forms of the
women's solo improvisational style known as `naz bar', or `grace dance',
on which are based the choreographed movements of dances such as
Dances from Western
Armenian dances from Western Anatolia, territory which is now in Turkey,
now thrive in other parts of the world, passed on by those who fled the
Sepastia Bar, from the region of Sepastia, is well known
in many versions among Sepastaree communities in the USA. Ooska Gookas
Hooshig Mooshig) and its musical sibling Shavalee
come from the city of Erzeroom in the Kareen region, as do Tamzara,
Tashginag and Erzroomi Shoror. Laz Bar is from Sev Dzov
on the Black Sea coast. As with other dances of people who fish the Black
Sea, the shoulder shimmy that is sometimes done is said to represent the
movements of the fish.
The Anatolian region of Daron or
Taron, which gives us Pompooreeg and of course the well-loved and
enigmatic Daronee, was one of the most cruelly devastated by the
Turkish deportations and massacres. Most of the Armenians living there
were killed, a few escaped, and a few remained, saving their lives by successfully
passing as Turkish. Some half a century later, in the late 1960's, Azat
Gharibian, choreographer of the Armenian State Song and Dance Ensemble,
ventured back into Daron to find the `disguised' Armenians and to collect
what they remembered of their pre-diaspora dance and music traditions.
The dance we know as Daronee was put together by Azat from fragments he
collected in Daron.
The haunting song was collected in
its entirety and recorded by the ensemble's orchestra. My teacher Tom Bozigian,
who worked closely with Azat, told me in 1987 that no translation was available
because `unfortunately the lyrics are immersed in a variety of archaic
dialectical subtleties', but my friend and colleague Shakeh Avanessian
succeeded with a partial translation in 1996. The lyrics apparently refer
to the tragic historical events that took place in Daron in this century.
Like a poem, the meaning is encoded in images and word play, and as in
so many Armenian songs, the loss of one's homeland is equated with the
loss of one's beloved. Here the singer speaks of losing both:
Love is like a field that has
There is a little breath that
is a breath
In the place of my lover
May God curse...
I love a little one, I am told
to leave that one too
Ah, Lashghert, death, tears
Once happy and sweet-smelling
My beautiful fair-haired lover
Go ahead and take my lover!
I know of a lover who misses you
(chorus:) Gorani, Gorani, my beloved
is probably the name of a place in Daron, and `Gorani', which is sung in
the chorus, apparently refers to a particular mountain range, home of the
deity of war. This association gives the sense of `fighting the battle
of life' to the dance and the song. Tom Bozigian also describes the movements
of Daronee as `emotional gestures stemming from wars and suffering.' According
to Tineke van Geel, Gorani is the dance on which Daronee is based, and
it is still found in Daron, Sassoon and Shatag. In the Middle Ages, Gorani
was a love song. Now, different versions of Gorani all usually refer to
sad events such as a poor harvest or lost love. Daronee is still in the
State Ensemble's repertoire - now followed by a fast bit to make more interesting