Torkom Movsesiyan: ‘Actually All Men Can Perform Eastern Dances!’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/NEW YORK — Torkom Movsesiyan is a dancer and cultural ambassador of the arts. His cultural organization, Torkomada, envisions dance to be an important but neglected diplomatic tool in cultural diplomacy versus more conventional methods that have failed. His dance projects are an original contribution to the world of art and diplomacy, and recipients of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Grant, the Creative Engagement grant, the Brooklyn Arts Fund grant, and the CUNY Dance Initiative Residency at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center. The New York Foundation for the Arts named him a renaissance artist with extraordinary abilities: a college professor, actor, dancer, singer, cultural ambassador, scholar and polyglot. He lectures on the Armenian Genocide at universities, and Cambridge University Publishers published his 2016 book essay, The Armenian Holocaust and International Law, in Dr. Klein’s Society Emerging from Conflicts. He holds an honors BA in international studies and MA in international relations. Torkomada is starting academic courses on Raqs Sharqi and cultural diplomacy.

Torkom Movsisiyan and a student

What is required for a man to be engaged in that profession?

Unfortunately, we alive in a world full of stereotypes and hypocrisy, where everyone must fit a certain norm in order to be considered normal. Despite that, if one makes the effort to look beyond these limiting stereotypes, one can realize that the profession of a belly dancer is as normal as any other. Although the term belly dance is more popularly used in the media, in its native origins this ancient art form is often called in Arabic raqs sharqi – meaning Eastern dance. In another sense, the terminology belly dance or la danse du ventre is vague because it not only involves the “belly,” but also the hips, torso, arms, and abdominal muscles. In Arabic culture, the art of raqs sharqi is unisex because it is a social dance similar to other folk dances: merengue from the Dominican Republic, kathak from India or kochari from Armenia. Similar to other unisex dance styles, a male raqs sharqi performer must possess many qualities, some of which are stamina, energy, fluidity, hip movement vocabulary, and graceful arms.

Please tell us how your passion for raqs sharqi began.

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I never imagined that one day I am going to be a dancer. As a child, I dreamed of becoming a pop singer, which is why I moved to New York City at the age of 21. While working at a women’s clothing store as a stock boy, my Moroccan co-workers would constantly play Arabic music, to which I would always enthusiastically move my hips. One day one of my co-workers, Souad, told me, “You dance so professionally, honey. I don’t believe you! You are Turkish,” to which I replied with a laugh that I am not. While auditioning as a singer, I began acting as well. During one of my acting auditions, I met the late belly dancer, Serena Williams, whom I asked whether she knew of any professional male raqs sharqi dancers teaching male students. Little did I know at that time that men perform raqs sharqi professionally as well as women. Serena had informed me about the legendary dancer Morocco and her protégé Tarik Sultan, both of whom became my teachers. I fell in love with Middle Eastern dance and music ever since, and the rest is history.

Do you think that only non-macho men are able to perform raqs sharqi?

To reiterate my point about stereotypes, all men can perform raqs sharqi as it is an art form. In general, art is open to anyone, disregarding age, race, religion, sex, political opinion, sexual orientation, etc. There are no boundaries in art. Hence, limiting the art of raqs sharqi to non-macho versus macho men is like claiming that it is only suited for well-fed or wider hip women versus skinny women.

What is the most vivid experience of your stage life?

In 2016, when the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council awarded my not-for-profit organization, Torkomada, the Creative Engagement grant to host my first Middle Eastern dance festival, Raqs Without Borders. What’s more, many more prestigious awards followed for several of my dance projects. I remember seven years ago when I was dreaming of opening my own dance festival but had no funds to begin. As the saying goes, “Work hard and dream big.” Torkomada is a not-for-profit organization that advocates for the arts in cultural diplomacy through dance classes, cultural festival, foreign language classes, genocide prevention, acting, and academic research (www.torkomada.weebly.com).

You have also some experience in films.

Topics: Arts, Dance

I love acting and transforming into different characters. My acting career, namely my multilingual skills and ability to produce various accents and dialects, enabled me to be a part of major Hollywood projects: HBO,Everyday with Rachael Ray,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “TimeOut NY,” “Law and Order,” “Guiding Light,” a commercial for Nissan, voice-overs for an ESL textbook for the Cambridge University Press, a commercial print model for Microsoft, a voice-over for a documentary on the Discovery Channel, assistant dialect coach and Armenian Genocide consultant for “The Cut,” acting in a series of educational videos for the American Museum of Natural History, acting in the Celebrity Ghost Series for the Biography Channel, a voice-over in Bulgarian for Google and a voice-over in Bulgarian for the insurance company AIG.

According to your Facebook page, you know 23 languages. How so?

Because my lovely ears catch languages the same way some people catch a flu. I was born and raised in Bulgaria, surrounded by many cultures. I grew up with Bulgarian Roms and Turks learning about their culture and language. Bulgaria’s geographical location is excellent as it is where East meets West. Growing up I was exposed to international music and art, and studied Armenian, Russian and English in elementary school. Transitioning to college, I learned German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, French, Farsi, Mandarin, and Portuguese among many others. Although a gifted polyglot, I am not fluent in all 23 languages. If I had the opportunity, I would travel to every single country in the world to learn every single language. While in college, my classmates used to call me a language freak. I practically became a piece of furniture in the library’s foreign language department. I still remember being interviewed for the honors program at The City College of NY, and asked in what language do I dream. I am currently teaching Arabic, English as a second language and Spanish language courses at various U.S. universities.

You have an ancient Armenian name, very beautiful, but rare among us. Where do your roots go back to?

I was very fortunate to grow up in a strong and supportive Armenian community where I studied Armenian, volunteered as a church choir singer, participated in Armenian theatrical plays, recited Armenian poetry, researched about the Armenian Genocide and now being invited to lecture on genocide at US universities. I was named after my late Armenian grandfather, and remember him encouraging me to pursue my English language studies by giving me petite cash every time I would earn an A. My grandmother, Eghisapet who spoke several languages, taught me some Turkish and Romany while living with her. My grandfather’s family came from Moush and my grandmother’s parents came from Ortaköy. Celebrating Armenian traditions and holidays with my family were some of the best moments I cherish in life, from attending Sunday church to enjoying delicious Armenian food. In 2013, I was privileged to work as an Armenian Genocide consultant and assistant dialect coach for the movie “The Cut.” I would like to express my gratitude to some Armenian- American organizations that awarded me scholarships: Holy Cross Church of Armenia (Washington Heights, NY), the Armenian-American Students’ Association, Armenian Relief Society, the Armenian Educational Foundation, the Organization of Istanbul Armenians, and the Constantinople Armenian Relief Society. In like manner, I would like to thank you for acknowledging my achievements in your book, Armenians in World Choreography.

There were and there are very skilled belly dancers among female American Armenians. Our compatriots, often being conservative, could not tolerate belly dancing for women, not to mention for men. How do the Armenians perceive what you do?

I haven’t performed raqs sharqi for that many Armenians, but I understand that there are some people who may not approve of what I do, which is fine. However, it is my hope that through education one day they will be able to look beyond these limiting stereotypes with an open heart and mind to appreciate the art of raqs sharqi, and its contribution to the world. As Emma Goldwin once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!”

The stage life of ballet dancers is short. What about male belly dancers?

I am grateful for the opportunities I have encountered as a raqs sharqi performer, and look forward to future endeavors. I am in preparation for my fourth annual award-winning Middle Eastern dance festival, Raqs Without Borders in NYC: A Dance-in-Cultural-Diplomacy Series. It is an original contribution to the world of art and diplomacy versus more traditional methods that have failed. In today’s strenuous US-Middle East relations where both do not need divorce but therapy, raqs sharqi may serve as a diplomatic tool in international affairs. I am currently in pre-production for my award winning dance spectacle, Raqs  Revolution. Similarly, I am working on a big dance project with a live band of musicians and dancers, dedicated to Egyptian music from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. In like manner, I am prepping for a massive Egyptian Shaabi dance event in NYC. I aspire to open my own foreign language school, write a book about raqs sharqi in cultural diplomacy, present new lecture-demonstration series, and pursue

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