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Gary and Susan Lind-Sianian / Armenian dance performers and instructors in America




Armenian dance performers and instructors in America


The versatility of Armenian musicians in the United States has had a profound impact on other forms of Middle Eastern music in America. The dance has, until recently however, remained exclusively an Armenian property, insulated from the outside community. The major media exposing Armenian dance outside of the community have been various dance groups or teachers.


A culture's dance generally reflects other values held by that culture. The Armenian traditional, contemporary, and stage dances have developed and changed in response to important social, political, and ideological changes within the community. It is impossible to understand American-Armenian dance outside of this context.


After the genocide, the most important local cultural organizations were the various compatriotic unions. The dance and culture of each distinctive region were preserved at these gatherings. The first "Armenian dance groups" in the United States were informal presentations at these meetings, where several people form the same village would perform their particular village dance. Occasionally, "ad hoc" dance groups were organized to perform at the annual picnic or banquet, but these informal dance groups remained ephemeral, and only performed within the context of the union's functions.


The first formal Armenian dance groups were a direct response to the nascent international folk dance movement. The Armenian Folk Dance Group of Boston was the first formal performing group in the United States (1926 to 1928). The director, Arevalois Deranian Kasparian, had become interested in folk dance as a young girl and learned many international folk dances in classes at the ─░stanbul Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). While later residing at an Armenian orphanage, she collected several different regional dances. Unlike the compatriotic unions, her group performed a variety of dance from several regions, concentrating on the song-dances.


The next major group developed ten years later. The Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York was founded in 1937 by Catherine Mirijanian, a secretary at the McBurney YMCA in New York City. The founders wanted to create a dance group to represent Armenia at international festivals, comparable to the dance groups of the Lithuanians, Italians, etcetera. The society was the first Armenian group in the United States to attempt to systematically collect the dances from the various provinces.


The society collected and performed over twenty-five different regional dances, particularly from Sepastia, Van, and Garin. The society was performance oriented and only collected dances that could be presented on stage. Unfortunately, several dances deemed too boring or too simple for stage were ignored and subsequently lost.


The American-Armenian community became exposed to Kavkaz style in the late 1940s, because of several factors. A considerable number of Soviet Armenian soldiers had been captured by the Germans during World War II. A number of these emigrated west after the war rather than return to the Soviet Union. This group included several dancer-choreographers such as Arshod Azruni and Haigaz Mgrditchian, who founded Kavkaz style dance groups in the United States.


Another major factor in the introduction of the Kavkaz style was the change of political climate. In the late 1940s, the Soviet Union opened its borders to immigration for the first time since the October Revolution. Many leftist-oriented Armenian political groups initiated extensive publicity campaigns within the Armenian community. Some groups organized style dance groups to promote Soviet Armenian culture. In response to these political campaigns, tens of thousands of Armenians around the world immigrated to "the Motherland" in the late 1940s.


This political campaign (and its dance groups) became discredited and collapsed shortly afterward, as word of Stalinist purges in Armenia reached Armenians living outside their homeland (the diaspora). The Cold War ended this establishment of harmonious relations (rapprochement) with Soviet Armenia for several years.

In the late 1950s, the American international folk dance community had its first major exposure to Armenian dance, because of the workshops of Vilma Matchette and Frances Ajoian, both of California. Mrs. Matchette collected and taught several of the popular dances done by Armenians, the initial "contemporary party dances." At the time no Armenian attempted to record these dances, and her classes are an important documentation of the dance at this period in time.

Mrs. Ajoian directed the Cilicia Armenian Dance Group in Fresno, California. This group paralleled the Folk Dance Society of New York in some respects, presenting traditional Western Armenian dances to the public. Mrs. Ajoian collected dances among the elderly and taught these dances at workshops. Several "standard" Armenian dances still performed in international folk dance circles date back to this era (that is, Laz Bar, Shuffle / Dari Me Na, Tamzara, etcetera).

In 1960, the team of "Hourig and Sossy" (Hourig Paplazian Sahagian and Sossy Krikorian Kadian) began performing on the East Coast. These women revived the old Kanto tradition of ─░stanbul and combined it with American vaudeville. Still performing in 1982, their act combined dance, song, acting, and mime into a coherent whole, telling stories (usually satirical) in several mediums.

Until the early 1960s, the repertoire of Armenian performing groups in the United States remained primarily Western Armenian, reflecting the origins of the immigrants. Aside from a few solo or couple dances (that is, Tamzara, Lezginka, Shalakhoi), the Kavkaz style was almost unknown. One exception was Haigaz Mgrditchian's group in Boston, Massachusetts. Dance groups were generally small and poorly funded, often being held together by one or two dedicated individuals.

It was difficult to locate actual folk garments for the dance groups to copy, because few authentic costumes had survived the 1915 genocide. Most groups' costumes were either an approximation, because of lack of funds, or elaborate highly romanticized reconstructions. Historic accuracy was not a major priority for most groups, aside from the New York Society.

The folk dance's theatricalization remained somewhat rudimentary, because no formal institution teaching Armenian choreography existed in the diaspora. The most successful Armenian-American choreographers were dancers who had extensive ballet background, and applied principles learned in ballet to the folk dance (that is, Seta Suni, Nevarte Hamparian, Seta Gelenian). The 1960s, however, witnessed a rapid transformation of Armenian dance groups into their present form.

The first American tour of the Armenian State Dance Ensemble in the 1960s electrified American-Armenian audiences. Many third generation American-Armenians were unfamiliar with Armenian dance (either Eastern or Western), associating dance with the quaint steps of their grandparents, or with the popular American-Armenian party dances. The Moiseyev-like acrobatics of the State Dance Ensemble transfixed the audiences, who readily accepted that this exciting ballet-derived folk dance was a "purer" form of Armenian dance. The existing performing groups began to pattern their repertoires after the State Dance Ensemble.

Soon after this aesthetic re-evaluation, a social/ideological re-evaluation began. Until the mid 1960s, the American-Armenian communities were supported on a local level. The funds raised for the large international Armenian institutions (that is, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), Armenian Relief Society (ARS), Tekeyan, Hmizkaine), were used to support the extensive Armenian communities in the Middle East, building schools, orphanages, cultural centers, etcetera. In the mid 1960s, these organizations realized that they had ignored the American communities completely, and that extensive cultural assimilation was endangering the American-Armenian community.

Somewhat belatedly, these groups refocused their efforts to develop an infrastructure comparable to that in the Middle East. Funds and leadership were provided to set up Armenian Day Schools, cultural centers, choral societies, theater groups, athletic teams, and dance groups. The rapid deterioration of conditions in Lebanon and Iran in the late 1970s has proven the wisdom in this policy.

Given the sponsorship and resources available through these organizations, many dance groups changed. Small, locally autonomous groups were incorporated into national networks, affiliated with a particular political or cultural organization. Dance instructors trained in the State Ensemble style were imported to organize these dance groups or found new ones. New dance groups, such as AGBU's Arat (New York) and Sardarabad (Los Angeles), now have over a hundred members and require extensive financing.

The importation of trained "professionals" to teach the dance has further accelereated the "sovietization" of dance groups in the United States. The Western Armenian dance had never been formalized into a teaching curriculum, as the Eastern had, and could not compete successfully. Today, virtually every Armenian dance group is a derivative of the State Dance Ensemble. The only Western Armenian dance groups left in North America are the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York and two offshoots, Nayiri (New York) and Navasard (Boston).

Aside from the dances introduced by Vilma Matchette and Frances Ajoian, very little Armenian dance was known in the IFD circles until the late 1960s. Haigaz Mgrditchian choreographed an Armenian suite for the Duquesne University Tamburitzans in 1965, but this had little impact on the larger IFD community. Ron Wixman and Steve Glaser taught several dances that they had learned as members of the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York, but their exposure was limited.

About 1970, Tom Bozigian began teaching Armenian dance, and permanently changed the repertoire of international folk dancing. His familiarity with traditional, contemporary, and stage dances allowed him to teach a wide variety of Armenian dance forms that appealed to most segments of the IFD community. A combination of shrewd marketing, dance training (performer/teacher/choreographer), and iron constitution enabled him to present Armenian dance virtually everywhere. To many non-Armenians, his name is synonymous with Armenian dance.

In the late 1970s, several other important Armenian dance figures appeared on the scene. On the West Coast, a number of other professional dancers trained at the Sayat Nova Choreographic School immigrated to the United States. However, none of these individuals had any significant impact on the IFD community because they preferred to concentrate within the Armenian community. (The attitudes and expectations of international folk dancers can appear quite bizarre to an outsider.)

On the East Coast, Arsen Anoushian and Gary and Susan-Lind Sinanian were the most significant figures. Arsen was the director of the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York and one of the foremost Western Armenian stylists in the Unites States. Although his primary interest was working within the Armenian community, he taught several workshops for the Balkan Arts Center in New York City. His main focus, however, was teaching the dances in local colleges for the Armenian student clubs and perpetuating these dances through his dance group.




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