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Gary and Susan Lind-Sianian / Armenian dance after 1915




Armenian dance after 1915


The destruction of Western Armenia in 1915, and the subsequent dispersion of the survivors, irrevocably destroyed the traditional structure of Armenian dance. The conditions that had sustained it for millennia had ended. Uprooted from their ancestral homeland, the Armenians scattered throughout the world. The dances of the village had fulfilled important functional needs of the people in that particular context, but were not functional in the new conditions of the emigrants. Despite the loss of the old dance forms, dance still remains an integral part of Armenian life.

Today, the various Armenian communities have created or adopted new dance forms to fulfill the new needs which have developed under alien conditions, particularly in the urban communities of the Armenian S.S.R., the United States, and the Middle East. In each of these areas the development varied significantly, to adapt to the needs of that specific community. Unfortunately, no research had addressed itself to this area of cultural comparison.

In the United States, the traditional Western Armenian music and dance remained an important cultural factor in the American-Armenian communities, and integral part of society. As the Armenian language fell into disuse among many American-born Armenians, the music and dance gained even more importance, as one of the remaining avenues of cultural identity maintenance. Today, this music and dance have developed into a characteristic form unique to the United States, and one of the principal means that today's American-American youth assert their Armenian identity.

This popular American-Armenian tradition is a synthesis of two dissimilar Western Armenian styles: the urban "Oriental" style and the rural "folk" style. These styles were preserved and fostered in the United States for decades through the picnics of the "compatriotic unions." These unions were comprised of groups of people who had come from and were often the sole survivors of villages or towns in Turkey.

The unions' primary purposes were to provide mutual support for members and to collect funds, and found new villages in Soviet Armenia, bearing the same name as their old homes. They also acted as important perservers of Armenian customs and traditions, retaining regional styles of dialect, songs, food, music, and dance for decades. The dances of each specific region were retained in isolation at the picnics and gatherings of that specific regional union, and were not known to other unions. (One would not find the songs and dances of Van at the Sepastatsi picnics, and vice versa.)

Although some unions are still active today, these compatriotic societies began to lose influence after World War II, when a younger Armenian-born generation came of age. This new generation did not share the nostalgic memories of their parents (after all, these youth had never seen these regions of Armenia), and preferred to focus their interest in institutions with a broader community base (that is, the church). Up until this time, Armenian music and dance were often considered somewhat old-fashioned and esoteric. It had remained confined in Popularity because each compatriotic union restricted itself to its own music, ignoring other regional traditions. As the stress on provincial regionalism diminished, a new interest in a wider "Pan-Armenian" identity replaced it. A new form of music was needed that would be acceptable to most people. The traditional music, in its original form, had too many associations with narrow interest groups.

In the late 1940s, the rise of the Vosbikian Band (followed by Artie Barsamian, the Gomitas, the Nor-Ikes, etcetera) heralded the American-Armenian "big band" era. These bands utilized western instruments (that is, guitar, saxophone, conga drums, bongos), and created a new Armenian "sound" that won wide acceptance. A homogeneous style of "American-Armenian" music developed which incorporated elements of both the urban and rural traditional music, and contemporary American music (that is, jazz and Latin rhythms). The music (and the dance) lost much of the subtle characteristics that distinguished the distinctive regional styles, but the resulting popular idiom brought new vigor to Armenian music and dance. This new style of music enabled the community to integrate itself on a much wider scale as a common interest of all groups.

Old songs were altered to fit this new, brash sound, and new songs and dances were created. These quickly established themselves as part of a new American-Armenian folk tradition. Closer contact with other Middle Eastern immigrant communities in the United States (that is, Greek, Arabic, Assyrian) led to the adoption of numerous songs and dances from these cultures. Modern American-Armenian music is "Pan-Middle Eastern," and incorporates many elements.

A new American-Armenian dance form also developed. These dances derive from three distinct sources. Some of the dances are traditional village dances that have been modified to fit the new music (that is, Halay, Tamzara, Papuri Sepastia Bar, Laz Bar). Other dances have been adopted and modified from ethnic groups (that is, Misirlou, Syrtos, Tsamiko, Dabke). Most of the dances, however, have been created by Armenian teen-agers and later adopted by adults (that is, Shuffle, California Hop, Michigan Hop). Although certain American-Armenian regional differences in repertoire and style exist (that is, Boston style, Detroit style, Fresno style), the popular dances are fairly uniform throughout the United States. The numerous youth conventions play a major role in the diffusion and maintenance of these contemporary party dances.

International folk dancers who attend an Armenian dance are sometimes disconcerted to find that the Armenian dances they know are quite different from the dances that the Armenians perform. Frequently, the Armenians have never heard of the dances popular among international folk dancers. The international folk dance (IFD) dancers are drawn from several traditions (stage, popular, traditional) that most Armenians are unfamiliar with, and the "turnover" rate in IFD is higher. ("This year's" dance is passe by next year.)

Armenian dances do change, of course, as any living tradition, but at a fairly slow rate. The Armenian "Shuffle" (known in IFD as Cari Me Na / Kadeh Yes Em) was created in 1951 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. By 1957, it had spread to the California Armenians. Today it is still the most important American-Armenian dance, aside from the basic bar. (Unlike most youth-created dances, it is not very strenuous, which probably accounts for its longevity.)

Armenian teen-agers are the primary dance innovators and their dances are the most ephemeral. These dances can wax and wane with amazing rapidity, similar to the dance fads of mainstream America. The "California Hop" (Tom Bozigian's Hink ou Meg) was introduced to New England Armenians in the mid 1970s, reached a peak of popularity, and is currently waning. Sulemani, a Vanetsi dance we introduced from Detroit, and Guhnega, a choreography of Tom Bozigian, are becoming local favorites, although both were unknown here in 1979.

Some new dances are actually old village dances in a new form ("old wine in new skins"). The old Venetsi Wedding Dance Haire Mamougeh regained popularity in New York City around 1978, as the "Armenian Cha-Cha." The old dance Laz Bar (double Tik in Pontos) died out in much of New England in 1960. In 1974, it was learned at a Chicago convention and reintroduced as a new dance. Internal Armenian politics also create significant differences, because the political parties rarely associate. The dances performed at an Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) dance can differ somewhat from the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) dance a mile away.

Armenian folk dance, like all living traditions, is a continually evolving form. The rapid changes since 1917 reflect the adaptation to new environments and needs. The contemporary American-American dances provide a basis for ethnic integration and identity. The massive influx of immigrants from Lebanon, Iran, and Soviet Armenia in the late 1970s, will further change the dance, particularly on the West Coast. The elaborate choreographies of today's stage groups satisfies vital Armenian social, idealogical, and political needs by presenting Armenian dance in "the best possible light," as defined by tastes of Western theater audiences.




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