Frescoes &
Art of Book
Armenian Dance

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.

Armenian Territory and History

he 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.

The 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. 

Armenian Dance

s 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

astern 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 Archka Yerezanke.

Dances from Western Anatolian Armenia

any 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 massacres. Sepastia Bar, from the region of Sepastia, is well known in many versions among Sepastaree communities in the USA. Ooska Gookas (a.k.a Hooshig Mooshig) and its musical sibling Shavalee come from the city of Erzeroom in the Kareen region, as do Tamzara, Medax 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 worn away
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!
Oh, sweet-smelling...

I know of a lover who misses you terribly

(chorus:) Gorani, Gorani, my beloved Gorani...

`Lashghert' 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 viewing.

. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, choreographic schools and state song and dance ensembles aim to preserve folk dance traditions in a format suitable for stage presentation. The stage versions can be quite different from the original village dance forms, and state ensembles are sometimes blamed as agents of destruction of the `real' traditional dancing. While dances do change when adapted for performance, it is worth bearing in mind that because so much Armenian traditional dance and music was tragically obliterated as a result of the massacres and diaspora, the survival of these arts in any form is something to celebrate. In any case, like all folk dance, Armenian folk dance is part of a living tradition which has changed a great deal and will continue to change, absorbing new influences and itself influencing others.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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