Vartabedian: SAVE ‘Dances’ up a Storm

WATERTOWN, Mass.—If there’s an extra bounce in Ruth Thomasian’s step these days, it’s quite understandable.

The founder/executive director of Project SAVE is kicking her heels over her latest calendar—the 25th edition—and she’s the first to admit it’ll strike up any Armenian band and get the crowd going.

Its subject? Armenian dancing!

And it could very well rank up there on top of her list, ahead of Armenians in the military, music, women, theater, weddings, and rugs. The list dates back to 1985 when the calendar project was launched—10 years after her archival preservation project became incorporated.

For Thomasian, music and dancing speak a universal language.

“What would you bring from your homeland that could not be lost or stolen or sold to pay your fare?” she asks. “Memories and folkways and strong bodies with hands joining and feet moving to the sounds of traditional, lively rhythms. It’s not your average calendar. It reads like a book.”

The pages are chock full of Armenians dancing, both young and old, down through the decades, whether solo or in a circle. There are common folks and the more proficient with members of the Tatoul Altounian Song and Dance Ensemble.

Many images are from the personal collection of ballet dancer Leon Danielian of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, courtesy of his niece Stephanie Zoccolillo and family friend Syruan Palvetzian, and folk dancer Eleanor Der Parseghian Caroglanian, who trained in Soviet Armenia.

Each photograph is captioned with details that place it into an historical context, bringing the dancers to life. Anyone with a social whim should find the venue nostalgic. There’s the “mom bar.” A candle dance. The last dance of a day’s long wedding celebration.
The candle is extinguished and everyone goes home.

Sure to melt your heart is toddler Norma Kafesjian (Nahigian) taken in 1932 twirling her baton in a tutu. Each month is overlaid with a glimpse of a costumed dancer and a theme dance. The month of June is aptly dedicated to weddings and dancing brides with arms aloof.

The cover shot is 1934 vintage showing the start of Armenian dance groups in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area and five women in costume at the International Institute’s Festival of Nations.

“Through dance, Armenians brought cultural life with them to their new countries, accompanied by music of myriad origins,” added Thomasian. “Different homeland styles were influenced by new local and contemporary dance idioms, creating new ways to keep the Armenian spirit alive.”

While Armenian Americans enjoyed the jitterbug and ballroom dancing, they did not waver from their ethnicity.

“In Soviet Armenia, dancing came to reflect the discipline and precision associated with Russian ballet,” Thomasian pointed out. “Armenian American dancers sought training from the Soviet Armenian dance masters. It’s such a diverse culture but truly hits home wherever you happen to be.”

For Thomasian, time marches on as she continues gathering images for books, films, genealogy, and dissertations, preserving history yet sharing it universally. It could be from a photo donor sharing family treasures or people looking to clear out their attics and basements. The mission is only as good as its benefactors.

Thanks to a stable corps of Simmons College interns and dedicated volunteers, the work gets done inside an office at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown Square that’s literally bursting at the seams.

Its collection of historic photographs has burgeoned to 35,000 dating from 1860. Unique in its approach, the center preserves the fragmented heritage of dispersed Armenians through photographs and memories of life in historic Armenia and the diaspora.
Each image is painstakingly documented and catalogued by Thomasian and her loyal staff.

“As with dance, we have learned new steps as we persevere to meet new challenges, especially during these tough economic times,” she maintains. “We are learning the ongoing technology dance as our slide lectures have become PowerPoint programs as digital imaging has supplanted film and communications have expanded with online media.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Thomasian’s own plans include spending time writing books and the possibility of a fourth profession. Retirement is in her immediate future, now that she’s qualified for Medicare and secured a senior bus pass. She looks forward to the day when Project SAVE welcomes a new executive director.

“My goal is to have a smooth transition while I am still able to explain past procedures and encourage new ways of continuing our unique operation,” she feels.

“As the saying goes, life is a dance and I’ll continue to enjoy every moment of it.”

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

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1 Comment

  1. In addition to Armenian dancing being so beautiful, it was a harmonious way of relaxing expression and at the same toning your body for that youthful energetic look.

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