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Dances of Greater Armenia

here are other dances, mainly danced closely linked together, which I think of as being from `Greater Armenia', that is, from the territory which used to be Armenian and where dances and music reveal an Armenian influence, even though the dances might be called Turkish, Kurdish, or Assyrian. Examples include Agir Govenk from Bitlis, the Kurdish Bablakhans and Halays from Van and parts of Kurdistan, Tulum Havasi from the Eastern Caucasus, and the Assyrian dance Zaroura.

Kurds were a strong minority in the former Armenian territory, and there are a number of dances identified as Armenian, in which Kurdish influence is particularly apparent: Khumkhuma, Papooree, Teen and Halay, for example. Danced in close linked-arm formation, these are known as `pert' (`fortress') or `bahd' type dances. `Bahd', meaning `wall' in Armenian, is linked linguistically to `bahr', meaning `dance'. And `Halay' comes from the word `alay', meaning `many people'. These close-together dances could be said to reflect the defensive nature of a constantly subjugated people, as well as the community solidarity which the dancing relies upon and reinforces.

Bianca de Jong suggests that dances belong to a place as well as to a people, and that as civilisations and cultures come and go, something of the dances remains in the land that nurtured them. My own experience - of all folk dance really, but Armenian dance in particular - is that what happens in the feet, how the feet feel the ground they dance upon, is very important. The dances of Greater Armenia speak to my feet the way the Armenian ones do, telling a story of lost land and enduring life. Zaroura, for example, is an Assyrian dance which feels quintessentially Armenian, although the steps don't resemble Armenian steps. We dance it linked tightly in a line. With each repetition of the dance sequence, we travel only the distance of the width of one foot. With each beat, we touch or step on the ground right beneath us, affirming again and again that where we stand right now, in the body and in the present moment, is home. The Assyrians haven't had a homeland for many centuries, but they have preserved their ethnic identity without one - perhaps because in dances like these, the homeland can exist beneath the feet of the dancer, even if nowhere else. 

Diaspora Dances

n the 1940s and 50s, second- and third-generation Armenian-Americans began to create a whole new repertoire of dances to replace what had been lost in the diaspora, by combining traditional and newly choreographed steps with older folk melodies and songs. A good example is Eench Eemanaee, also known as the Armenian Misirlou. It evolved from a combination of the Greek Misirlou which was enormously popular in the USA in the 1950s, and the traditional Armenian dance Lorke Lorke (a.k.a. Sirdes, `my heart'), which was brought from Daron, near Lake Van. The words to Eench Eemanaee, like many Armenian songs, tell a story of lost love as a metaphor for the lost homeland: `From the very day that you left, I became bitter toward life / And even the flowers cried and were sad with me / If only, my love, you had returned...' The music to these `new' dances is often characteristically `bright' as a result of having been recorded in recent decades by Armenian-American orchestras, and they nearly always go to the right, a sign that they are dances of celebration. (Dances that move principally to the left tend to be more melancholy, according to Tineke van Geel.) Siroon Aghchig ( Sweet Girl), Ambee Dageets ( Armenian Turn), and Guhneega are some popular dances recreated in the diaspora.

A creative flexibility remains in the dancing at Armenian community gatherings in the U.S.A. and the diaspore today. Typically, the orchestra plays a tune, and people form many crowded lines, with each line dancing whatever steps they feel like! So different lines might be dancing Siroon Aghchig, Halay, Sirdes or steps with no particular name, to the music for Ambee Dageets, for instance.

These now-familiar dances have a particularly poignant message about the endurance and importance of dance traditions. I find it profoundly inspiring that even when a people, culture, and homeland is as comprehensively devastated as was Armenia, what was destroyed can be put back together by its survivors - not as it was, but in a new way.

Originally, this creative flexibility in all its forms was part of a conscious effort to allow new life to rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes of the land laid waste by attempted genocide. This same brave creativity inspired the Soviet-Armenian composer Khachatoor Avedissian to write his Oratorium in Memory of the Victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 , a modern composition using traditional Armenian instruments and melodies. The Oratorium's third movement, Berceuse, is based on a traditional lullaby, and its beauty moved me to create the dance Shoror. Although I do not have Armenian ancestry, I believe that the consequences of genocide affect all members of the human family, and that ritual acts of healing can be everyone's responsibility. Given the precedent of the creativity with which Armenia's scattered children have responded to the loss in this century of so much of their music, dance and other art, as well as the loss of so many lives, it felt appropriate to arrange this dance, combining traditional Armenian shoror steps along with my own choreography. 

`Shoror', which means `to sway', is linked linguistically to `oror', `to rock or cradle'. The subtle swaying of the hands, tracing the infinity symbol in the space in front of the heart, is a gesture of cradling new life which is reflected in the words of the lullaby: `Night, light of the moon falling on your face / My love is always for you / May no evil hand reach you / You are my only hope, you are my innocent, noble little one / I will rock you with this lullaby / So that you will grow older quickly / And quickly become the flame in the hearth of your own home / You are my dream, you are my sun...'

When we dance Shoror, we hold candles as for a vigil, to shine the light of awareness on what has been kept in obscurity, and to testify that we see and remember. The nurturing of life is affirmed again in our feet when we walk the infinity symbol out on the ground, in steps which echo the deportations and forced marches into the Syrian desert in 1915. Finally we come together, raising our light-filled hands in Avedissian's hopeful image of the diaspora from the sixth and final movement of the Oratorium, Armenia with a thousand wings. 

Avedissian's music seems to touch the place in the human heart which hopes and grieves, and the candle dance Shoror has been welcomed with great feeling. In 1995, many circle dance groups in Europe and North America included it in their vigils or commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. In May 1995, the very week of that anniversary, I taught Shoror along with other Armenian dances as well as Jewish and Gypsy dances, as part of a community music festival in a Christian church in Berlin. This was particularly significant given that, to quote Vahakn Dadrian,

Many see the lack of action and reaction following the Armenian genocide as a critical precedent for the ensuing Jewish Holocaust of World War II. Indeed, it has been reported that, in trying to reassure doubters of the morality and viability of his genocidal schemes, Hitler stated, `Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' (p. xix)

My own belief is that if we had all spoken of the annihilation of the Armenians, the Holocaust of World War Two might not have happened on so great a scale. I also feel that it may be our responsibility to remember and speak of them now. As hard as it is to acknowledge these horrors and our own feelings in the face of them, the act of bearing witness to the past is our only hope of making different choices in the present, and thereby safeguarding the future.

It can also be painful to acknowledge that all human beings have the capacity to initiate, or to participate in, persecution. The message encoded in dances such as Shoror and Daronee may be that we each are called to `fight the battle of life' - not against our neighbours, but rather to keep alive the humane spark in ourselves and in our communities that will refuse to collaborate with such events should they ever occur in our homelands, in our lifetimes. Perhaps we can take heart from the surviving, thriving Armenians today, because after all, the attempted genocide failed. Armenian language, culture, dance, music, art, learning, and religion are alive and well today in many, many more places than can ever be destroyed. It is ironic, yet miraculous, that the actions intended to obliterate Armenian existence, eighty years later have thus helped to guarantee its survival. 
 

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. War and suffering continue to plague the Armenian republic, parts of which remain devastated by the massive earthquake of 1988, but the Armenian people have ensured their survival in the strong roots they have put down in all the places the winds of change have carried them. Continually nurtured by living artistic and cultural traditions, the vibrancy and resilience of these roots are a lesson to us all, and we are lucky to have these beautiful dances as our tools and our teachers.

Courtesy of:
Laura Shannon 
Web site - www.dance.demon.co.uk
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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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