Houshamadyan: Preserving Armenian Village Dance and Life

“What we took with us and what we left behind”

Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Massachusetts is where my parents met in the late 1950s – at the St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church picnic. In those days and all throughout my childhood, the dance floor in front of the bandstand at the upper Camp was full beyond capacity with Genocide survivors, their children and grandchildren joyfully continuing the traditions of their respective villages. Displaced from these villages because of the Genocide, the survivors steadfastly maintained whatever traditions they could, from language to food to music and dance.

Reconstructing and preserving the memory of all aspects of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire is the mission of Houshamadyan, an open digital archive founded in 2010 by historian Vahe Tachjian, PhD in Berlin, Germany. Houshamadyan carries out its work through research and scholarship with an educational foundation. The organization has a particular interest in “social history, the history of daily life, local microhistory, dialects, music, literature, material and culture…” Preserving cultural artifacts produced by Ottoman Armenians is of particular interest. These artifacts include old photographs, film footage and musical recordings, many of which come from personal or family collections. Intangible items are also archived, including games, customs, songs and dances.

Houshamadyan’s newest section about Armenian dance was initiated by experts who desired to preserve the old village and regional dances. While participating in online presentations about the new dance section, memories of our Genocide survivors gracefully, energetically and sometimes raucously twirling, stepping and bounding on the dance floor filled my heart. Houshamadyan US chairperson Ani Boghikian-Kasparian explained that the dance archive came under the purview of the US office because the dances that are being preserved have survived mostly in US Armenian communities, a unique situation for the archival work being conducted here. American Armenians were desperate to hold onto their culture following the Genocide, and the compatriotic unions would help to uphold the traditions. 

The dance experts learned directly from the descendants, participated in dance groups and attended dance academies. They held extensive meetings to prioritize the dances based on the danger of them being lost or forgotten. “Listening to the experts’ stories of the steps and how they learned the dances is intriguing and exciting,” said Boghikian-Kasparian. In a series of high-quality video productions, Houshamadyan explains and documents each dance step by step. “Houshamadyan not only preserves but revitalizes our traditions by passing them on to future generations,” explained Boghikian-Kasparian. All involved could not underscore enough the urgency to document the dances for preservation, for posterity and for future generations to enjoy and revive.

Tom Bozigian leads the line during production

Houshamadyan’s dance experts include Carolyn Rapkievian of Bar Harbor, ME, Susan and Gary Lind-Sinanian of Watertown, MA, Robert Haroutunian of Sunnyside, NY and Tom Bozigian of Los Angeles, CA. Rapkievian is retired from the Smithsonian and has been teaching Armenian dances for 40 years. A director of Armenian dance ensembles, she received a grant from the Maryland Arts Council in 2019 to document dances from historic Armenia. The Lind-Sinanians have researched and taught Armenian dance since the 1970s and currently work as curators at the Armenian Museum of America. Haroutunian directs an Armenian dance group devoted to preserving dances from historic Armenia with a repertoire that includes 140 dances. His own repertoire includes numerous songs that accompany some dances, known as yerk-bar. Bozigian is a world-renowned Armenian dance researcher and teacher who is skilled in over 400 dances. He began collecting dances in the 1940s and studied at the state choreographic school in Yerevan. Bozigian continues to lead workshops and classes with his wife Sheree King, who is also a professional dance instructor.

With great anticipation and following countless meetings, discussions and planning, the first group of dances was filmed in August 2021 in Watertown, Massachusetts, both at the Armenian Cultural Foundation and the Armenian Museum of America, thanks to the generosity of Drs. Ara Ghazarians and Nishan Goudsouzian and Jason Sohigian, former Weekly editor and current executive director of the Armenian Museum of America.

Filming at the Armenian Cultural Foundation

Each dance took several takes and many rehearsals prior to the filming. The experts would be dancing over Zoom in their own spaces, collaborating on what would be the final product. They also decided that the music had to be authentic, so some was original recorded music from past decades and some live music thanks to the talents of John Berberian (oud), Mal Barsamian (clarinet), Bruce Gigarjian (guitar) and Ron Tutunjian (dumbeg).

Directing from Berlin was artistic director of Houshamadyan Silvina Der-Meguerditchian, who is also responsible for the editing and creation of the final product. Der-Meguerditchian, who was unable to be in the US at the time, directed from the phone while Boghikian-Kasparian sat in the director’s chair. “What you see you can attribute to Silvina’s artistry,” enthused Boghikian-Kasparian. The recordings are “not only a showcasing of the dances, but also a tutorial,” she continued.

The group decided on the following dances for the first series:

Medax Tashginag, Kher Pan and Kosh Belazig from Garin
Dzaner Bar from Kharpert
Beejo and Govdoontsi Bar from Sepastia
Pampouri, Daldala, and Lepo Lele from Van
Kessabsi Barer from Kessab
Shavelee/Houshig Moushig from Erzerum
Chnkoush Halay from Chnkoush

One challenge was the village variations of dances, like the Tamzara. For this dance alone, there were versions from Garin, Alashgerd, Palu, Kharpert, Arapgir, Yerznga and Malatya. Music is a large part of Armenian dancing, and what Armenian American musicians would do early in the 20th century was take different melodies from different villages of the Tamzara and create medleys. 

Robert Haroutunian and Carolyn Rapkievian rehearsing at the Armenian Museum of America, Watertown, MA

Rapkievian explained these medleys were created so they wouldn’t get bored playing the same tunes and because people started dancing together from the various provinces. When the dances in the US became pan-Armenian dances, people learned from each other, and the bands played all the different melodies. “Untangling the melodies to find the original versions for the dances is part of the process,” she said, adding that there are subtle stylistic differences between the various regions. The rhythm and syncopation have been changed from the original regional rhythms, which need to be addressed to preserve the original. In addition, the percussion instruments are different between the Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian – dumbeg versus dhol, for example.

Rapkievian said that she grew up learning the dances from her grandparents and by going to picnics. Besides the desire to archive and document the dances, she stressed that “a second phase of the project is to revive them,” which would mean going out and teaching them in different communities.

The Lind-Sinanians told the Weekly that their active work in collecting information about the village dances spanned from 1975 to 1990. They would travel to various picnics and the homes of Genocide survivors to hear their stories and learn their traditional dances, research that “took on a life of its own,” since the couple’s original intent was to learn about these dances for their wedding. Gary Lind-Sinanian recalled interviewing one survivor who expressed gratitude and relief that their conversation focused on happier times, like weddings, rather than on “the harrowing details of the Genocide.” “Even his own children had no interest in his village dances, and we were the only ones interested in learning this legacy,” said Lind-Sinanian. “He was so happy to share them with us. It was humbling,” he concluded.

Some interesting tidbits were shared by the dance experts, including learning about the stomping part of the dances. The experts explained that the stomping in the village dances would be done to flush out the game birds for hunting purposes. Haroutunian, who studied with Arsen Anoushian, director of the Armenian Folk Dance Society formed in 1937 in New York, explained the significance of the handkerchief used in the dances. He said it would be dictated by the region and sometimes signify the line leader. “It was very rare to see a solo female dance in Western Armenia,” Haroutunian said, continuing, “Often men danced with men, and women danced with women.”

Bozigian shared that sometimes movements were influenced by the environment, such as the limping step due to uneven terrain. Up and down movements are reminders of the mountains and plains; dances are more difficult in the mountainous areas and the steps are heavier. “Why did some of the rhythms develop? Why are there breaks?” he asked. “Some differences are related to topography, and some of it is due to the lyrics.” For example, villagers who would walk the same path for hundreds of years, and there would be a rock that would cause a break. They might be singing something while walking the path, and it would have to change because of the bump. “This would have to be a constant occurrence for it to evolve,” explained Bozigian. “A style has to develop in a region maybe because of the lyrics or topography causing the break.” He then went on to elaborate on the difficulties of identifying the dances due to the more than 500 Armenian dialects. “We should have been there in the twenties and thirties recording the dances because they were still dancing the original versions here at that time,” he recalled wistfully.

Rehearsing to live music by Mel Barsamian (clarinet), John Berberbian (oud), Bruce Gigarjian (guitar) and Ron Tutunjian (dumbeg) at the Armenian Cultural Foundation

Boghigian-Kasparian offered her experiences as one whose family came to Detroit from Beirut. She said that they never experienced line dancing while she was in Lebanon, seeing it for the first time in the US and considering it American Armenian dancing. She did not realize until much later that the dances actually originated in the villages of Western Armenia. In actuality, the dances, steps and beats are quite intricate.

During one of the presentations, Boghigian-Kasparian showed filming of the Dzaner Bar as an example. In the recording, Bozigian is demonstrating the beat and steps – “boom, ta, ta, ta, da;  one ta ta ta doom da” – with great concentration and emphasis on certain beats. This brought tears to my eyes thinking of our survivor generation keeping these dances alive after all they suffered and coming to the US. 

“I go back to 1944 – that’s when I started,” explained Bozigian. “There’s nothing like experiencing those immigrants and their dances, their meetings, their outings, the picnics…amen desag hantes, and this is very important work that Houshamadyan is doing. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone going back to 1915,” he said sadly. He elaborated that in the US, there are large concentrations of people from all the vilayets in Western Armenia, and in Armenia, Van and Moush Sassoun are heavily represented, but speak a different dialect. In certain cases, the rhythms are different. “This is a process, and it’s going to take a long time,” he said, concluding, “Thank God we have Houshamadyan.”

Houshamadyan will be filming in Detroit, MI this summer, where different dances will be recorded with a different band.

Houshamadyan is looking for old videos and movies from picnics or community or family events where the older generations are seen dancing. You can support the work of Houshamadyan, whether for the new dance initiative or any of its preservation work online.

My parents met at an Armenian church picnic, and my husband Ara and I met at an AYF dance in Watertown. Our relationship began while dancing the traditional line dances I learned at Camp Haiastan as a young grandchild of Armenian Genocide survivors. Today, those who desire our elimination from the lands we have inhabited for millennia continue with the erasure of our culture and monuments. For these reasons and more, I believe the documentation and revitalization of these dances is just as important as the preservation of our entire culture and the use of Western Armenian. One need only read this poem by Vahram Tatigian, translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian from Armenian Poetry of Our Time to understand:

“Arshile Gorky Dancing”

Now only the photo remains:
Arshile Gorky dancing a dance from Van
at a New York City reception
surrounded by prettily made up Anglo-
Saxon faces. Arshile Gorky dances
far from his homeland and not far
distant from the day he will kill himself.

Filled with homesickness, I’m going to
dance. Give me some room, please, American
friends. I’m going to dance the dance
of my ancestors, the dance of wild winds
right in the middle of your cocktail party,
tasty hors d’oeuvres and tasteful diamonds
on beautiful women. Not that I notice
these very much. My huge churning
passion keeps asking how I got here, here
in this huge steel and cement cocoon.

Houshamadyan is officially registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit association in the United States as the Houshamadyan Educational Association. Check donations can be made payable to Houshamadyan Educational Association and mailed to 38228 Lane Drive, Farmington Hills, MI, 48018. The Houshamadyan Educational Association Board consists of Michelle Andonian, Ed Bedikian, Ed Hartounian, Ani Boghikian-Kasparian, Lara Nercessian and Alice Nigoghosian.

Pauline Getzoyan

Pauline Getzoyan

Editor
Pauline Getzoyan is editor of the Armenian Weekly and an active member of the Rhode Island Armenian community. A longtime member of the Providence ARF and ARS, she also is a former member of the ARS Central Executive Board. A longtime advocate for genocide education through her work with the ANC of RI, Pauline is co-chair of the RI branch of The Genocide Education Project. In addition, she has been an adjunct instructor of developmental reading and writing in the English department at the Community College of Rhode Island since 2005.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you, Pauline for this wonderful piece about Armenian dance, Houshamadyan’s project, your personal connection to it, and for the moving piece, “Arshile Gorky Dancing” (who wrote that?) I love Armenian circle dances and learned many of them growing up in Los Angeles, from Tom Bozigian. have such fond memories of going to our community picnics at the local park and dancing to the live band there. I, too, have always been surprised that most Middle-Eastern born Armenians never learned them or used them there. I consider myself lucky to have gone to the first Armenian day school in the country, Ferrahian, and having periodic lessons there from Tom Bozigian. I’ve carried those with me to every Armenian dance since then, and they give me an immediate, physical and emotional connection to my homeland and ancestors, like no other activity ever has.

  2. Thank you for writing this article Pauline. I had the privilege to watch all these amazing dancers film & document these traditional Armenian dances at the Armenian Cultural Foundation last Summer. And an even greater honor to have my daughters Nairi & Knar, Great-Grandchildren of Genocide survivors, dance along side these dancers, carrying the legacy of our ancestors. I highly encourage anyone who read this article to join me in donating to Houshamadyan, so they can continue this very important archival work. Ani Boghosian-Kasparian dedicated so much time to this initiative last August and the global Armenian community has a responsibility to preserve these traditions before they are lost forever! Thank you Houshamadyan

  3. I too learned these traditional Armenian dances from Tom Bozigian, when we invited him to Ottawa in 1974.
    To my amazement one day in May 2003, in a restaurant on Hanrapetutyan St (Yerevan). AVC volunteers were celebrating one year of volunteering. I had taught them a few Bozigian dances, and Bozigian showed-up with his own dance teacher (Karapetyan). The band played Loorke and on the floor we had 4 generations of dancers dancing with the same steps.
    I am happy to see this Houshamadyan project which we must all support financially.

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