Tineke van Geel teaching “Kochari”

Tineke van Geel The Ambassador of Armenian Dance in the World

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Tineke van Geel is a Dutch dance teacher who specializes in Armenian traditional and folk dances and teaches them throughout the world. She has frequently taught with her husband Maurits van Geel, also a folk dance teacher, who for 24 years headed the International Dance Theater in the Netherlands, a professional dance company.

According to Tineke van Geel’s official website, she taught her first folk dance classes in 1973. It was this debut that led to her getting her official diploma in 1977. Years later she developed a particular interest in Armenian dances and decided to travel to Armenia to do research. She remains actively involved in dance research in Armenia which has made her a world-renowned specialist of Armenian dance, working with eminent choreographers Azat Gharibyan and Artusha Karapetyan. Since 1985, she has regularly visited Armenia to study folklore at the Pedagogic Institute and Choreographic School in Yerevan.

Part of each research trip is devoted to working with several amateur groups in Armenia and doing research on costumes. Two research trips were funded by scholarships of the Dutch government. A number of times Tineke van Geel visited the United States to observe the dances performed by the Armenian communities there. In January 1986 she published a book in Dutch on Armenian history, culture, dance and costumes (it is currently out of print). In 1987 she took a special exam which enabled her to acquire a degree as graduate of the Dance Academy without formally completing the course work and other requirements.

Besides giving workshops in European countries, she has taught in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. Her classes include workshops for students of various levels, from beginners to professionals, and she has taught classes in International Folk Dance, Dutch and Armenian dances. In addition to teaching, Tineke has taught and choreographed for the professional group in Amsterdam Het Internationaal Danstheater and appeared as a guest teacher at the dance academy in Kuopio (Finland). A lot of dances that she researched in Armenia had never been recorded. Therefore, groups from Armenia were invited to the Netherlands which led to the production of CDs with Armenian music on the Van Geel Records label. Recently these programs have also become available on DVD.

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I met her during her last visit to Armenia, with a group of amateur dancers… She does not remember how many times she traveled to Armenia, but it was her 25th dance and culture tour…

Tineke, how did your interest in Armenian dance start?

I got my education as an international dance teacher at National dance organization of The Netherlands, teaching dances from Romania, Bulgaria, etc. But Armenian dances were unknown — I am talking about the end of the 1970s. At that time there was no dance academy in the Netherlands for folk dance teachers, only part-time educational training set up by the National Folk Dance Society. After finishing my education, I started to teach at clubs in Amsterdam, as in the Netherlands we have many recreational groups meaning that people joining these groups are amateurs. They dance just for fun as a hobby once or twice a week. Then I became acquainted with Armenian dance teachers such as Thom Bozigian from the US and Eddie Djololian from France, who came to teach Armenian dances. So I thought it will be interesting to learn Armenian dances, because, I think, the other styles (Bulgarian, Romanian) don’t have as many arm movements, as Armenian dances. When I was a child, I was educated in ballet, that’s why these arm movements appealed to me a lot. The other thing is I like Armenian music, as well as the extreme differences between female and male styles of dancing — macho, very masculine male dances and very lyrical, graceful women dances. Yet when I saw those two teachers, they were so different in their teaching, the reason for which I did not know at that time. So in the beginning of ’80s I decided that if I am going to teach Armenian dances I should go to Armenia. In 1983, I found the “Abovyan” Armenian club in Den Haag; they offered history and language classes. I started to take those classes once a week, and later I was asked to teach the Armenians in Den Haag Armenian dances! Then I met Gregory Badalyan, who was working at the Soviet embassy in the Netherlands. He offered me his help in going to Armenia to take dance classes. In 1985 I applied for a scholarship through the Dutch Ministry of Culture, and I was granted permission to go to Armenia. So I traveled there with my husband Maurits van Geel; we were received by the AOKS (Armenian Society for Cultural Cooperation with Foreign Countries) association. I told them I came only for three weeks so I would like to take dance classes every day and every night! I recorded some music; my husband filmed what I was studying. I also needed to speak Armenian…

So do you speak some Armenian?

Yes, I do speak, it is a bit difficult, because I have no regular practice although I visit Armenia for half a month to one month every year. Thirty years ago I also learned to write in Armenian, but now I cannot, it is difficult. In 1988 I lived here for five months, so I was speaking very well. Now I live in a very small village in Holland and there are not Armenians there. I returned to the Netherlands, with the knowledge that with visiting Armenia once, you do not become a specialized Armenian dance teacher. I wanted to go back as soon as possible. So I started to travel again and again, but every time it was so short, so I decided to apply for a scholarship again, but this time to the Dutch Ministry of Education. At that time Netherlands had a treaty with Soviet Union for student exchange in all fields. I was granted a scholarship for five months, so I came to Armenia again in 1988 and was assigned to the Pedagogical Institute. It was a difficult time – the Soviet army was in Yerevan, curfew, then the earthquake, after which I started to take private classes from different teachers along with two Armenians from Lebanon. Because all  the classes had live music, I faced a problem teaching them in the Netherlands. In the beginning of 1990s I invited several Armenian musicians to the Netherlands – Hrachik Muradyan, Ludwig Gharibyan and we made an ensemble. I rented a studio and we made professional recordings of the music for my dances. I established my own CD label, “Van Geel Records,” and also organized concerts for our Armenian band in eight cities of Netherlands.

I do not have my own dance group, I teach classes as a guest teacher. Since 1995 I do not even hold weekly classes, as I tour often.

Tineke van Geel in a class in Taiwan

In how many countries have you taught Armenian dance? How they learn about the classes?

Actually I taught in 14 European countries. Sometimes in one country you have participants from neighboring countries, so after visiting a workshop they invite me. Actually I am not advertising as a teacher. Once I went to the United States as a participant in a big dance camp, and when they discovered that I am a dance teacher, they invited me the following year as a teacher. Thus, I made a tour in the US and Canada. In the US I met people from Japan, so I was invited there too. I made seven tours of Japan teaching Armenian dances. Then I was invited to Taiwan, Hongkong, Singapore and Malaysia. And I have some contacts in Australia, so I was also invited to teach there and in New Zealand.

So, you are invited to various places because people know you or they have learned some of your dances through other teachers, and also because the music I have is of good quality. I have also dance notations, so people who study, later can pass dances to their students. Currently I work in three directions: I teach Armenian dances as a guest teacher, I produce CDs and I organize dance and culture tours to Armenia.

You produce CDs only with Armenian music?

Yes! Their titles are “Hayastan,” “Anoush,” “Garni,” “Shoror,” “Ararat,” “Barev,” “Muradian Ensemble” album I and II, “Spirit of the morning wind.” Each CD contains 18 dances — Tamzara, Papuri, Tars par, Lorke etc., mainly traditional, but also some choreographed dances. For instance, I bought the rights of Khachatur Avetisyan’s two dances, producing them on my CDs. I met Khachatur in 1988, and at that time he has written a beautiful oratorio in commemoration of the victims of the Armenian genocide. It was the earthquake time, so he asked me if I could take the studio tapes of this oratorio to the Netherlands and produce them on CD, which I have done. The idea was to allocate the income of the CD to the earthquake victims, so Avetisyan’s oratory was produced in the Netherlands and later released in Paris. By the way, about two years ago my husband was in Istanbul on a jury of a major dance festival and he got in touch with Kalan production. This is a big folk music company, that also emphasizes the music of non-Turkish groups. My husband Maurits met the director, who showed him Khachatur Avetisyan’s CD and asked if he knew about it. Maurits answered that actually his wife had produced it. The producer said he would like to produce the same music in Turkey in memory of Hrant Dink. Both myself and Khachatur Avetisyan’s son, conductor Mikayel Avetisyan, were ready to cooperate, but it was quite problematic because, as I said, that piece commemorates the Armenian Genocide victims. Finally this CD was produced in Turkey, with Armenian titles, but with subtitle “In commemorations of the victims of the Great Catastrophe.” It happened; you can say “We don’t want that,” but you can also say: “That it is an important step.”

In your opinion, what is typical in Armenian dances?

It is hard to say in one word. You have, of course, different directions; there are groups doing traditional dances and others do more choreographed dances. I know these two separate worlds are not together. In my opinion — because I worked in both worlds — they crossed over and they both have very interesting aspects. It is very good to keep traditional dances, on the other hand, they are still very much alive, and they are being changed. I, as a researcher, see that the traditional dances are not like a museum; people like to do their own interpretation, which is natural. I respect the fact that traditional dances frequently came from Western Armenia but I am also very interested in the other direction, which includes maybe a little bit more theater or choreography, but still there are traditional elements in the steps. If you look at the character of Armenian dances and you look just at the people in restaurants, you see that every woman can dance with hand movements. Foreign peoples are not used to dancing with hand movements; this is very far from our cultures. So to be able to teach foreign peoples how to work with hand movements you more or less have to offer them the basic dance. I think it is also an interesting component, as everybody from a young age is being taught that; young girls see the dances at the parties and they naturally copy them. I think there is also a place for choreographed dances because they can teach the foreigners at least how to do that. So I can see very down to earth movements, the Western Armenian material, mixed dances a lot, but I also see there is spot for very macho, very powerful male dances and lyrical women’s dances. I want to crossover to both worlds.

Some years ago the Ministry of Education of Armenia gave you a special diploma for your 25 years of promoting Armenian dance, music and culture.

It was in 2006. I felt very honored to receive it. You see, after teaching dance I always provide the participants information about Armenia and its culture. Sometimes I feel myself as the dancing ambassador of Armenia in the world: being non-Armenian I try to promote this culture as much as possible. With this purpose, since 2005, I have organized tours to Armenia as well. Despite of all difficult circumstances I have encountered living in Armenia, I think that the country is worth becoming a destination. Part of the tour includes dance classes from local teachers, and of course we go sightseeing and have meetings with dance groups. Here I cooperate with skilled choreographers from Yerevan, Ludwig Poghosyan and Gagik Ginosyan for more traditional material and Paylak Sargsyan, who also worked several times in Netherlands. We went, for example, to Sasnashen village to meet and dance with the people from Sasun, and visit Zolakar, where Alashkert dances have been preserved, to Yeghegnadzor, etc. I incorporate dance and meeting people in this format. I traveled a lot throughout Armenia; tourism is gaining ground but they want to do too many things with tourists in one day. The program is very packed; some tourists see four-five churches in one day, they make the long trip to Artsakh, so I decided to do something different, setting up cultural tours to Armenia with a more relaxed program combining hiking and culture. At the moment I am only offering combined dance and culture and do not advertise the standard touristic tours anymore.

You work mainly with amateurs?

At the moment, yes. I did teach at my husband’s company, once a week teaching basic folklore. I choreographed Armenian pieces for them, also in Finland and Taiwan. The Armenian TV broadcast videos of my dance classes “Sasouni razmakan par” (Battle Dance of Sasun) and “Tsaghkats baleni” (“Blossomed Cherry-Tree”) in Taiwan. Everybody was surprised to see how Chinese people successfully execute the Armenian dances.

I was present at your training. Who are the participants?

They are a variety of people. For instance, this year there are three people from New Zealand, two of them are teachers. I am sure they will keep some of the material, that’s why I make DVDs of the trainings, so they have a backup with the dance details and music and can take them home. Other people just want to see Armenia; dance is their hobby, so they combine these two.

And most of them were of middle age. Is that usual?

A very interesting question. That is different in each country. For example, in Western Europe, the age of people attending folk dance classes as a hobby is over 30, while in other countries it can be even 40 plus. In the US, it is frequently higher. In the Netherlands we are very active in folk dances, as we have many good folk dance teachers and a lot of amateur groups. The present development is that we draw more teenagers. For my generation it was so amazing to see so many teenagers dancing traditional dances every last Friday of the month here at the Cascade in the summertime. By the way, the same was in Taiwan, because they do folk dances at the universities, which we don’t have in Europe. We have to be careful do not lose the youth; otherwise we would die out as a folk dance community.

Are Armenian dance teachers not jealous that a non-Armenian teaches Armenian dances?

Sometimes for me it is also a bit strange that me, a Dutch woman, teaches Armenian dances. So that is also a reason I invite Paylak Sargsyan to Netherlands for teaching and directing, as he is a valuable source for materials, as our other teachers. As about jealousy, I felt it by some dance teachers, but not in Armenia…

Instead of being happy that their culture is being spread…

Yes, I wish to give credit to people here. Also when I teach in some country I always give credit to the person from whom I learned… Recently I started to produce DVDs along with CDs that I dance alone. It is important to keep material that is there, for teachers. In some countries, for instance, in the US, it is common to learn from DVDs, which I think is wrong, because you first should experience the dance, to have it in your body, hear the voice of the teacher, who tells you about the details.

And what are your current plans?

They are pretty much unchanged — I still travel and teach and continue to organize dance and culture tours to Armenia and promote to visit the country. I really feel it as my second homeland. Besides I have lifelong Armenian friends and I am lucky that my visits to Armenia offer me the chance to meet them again. I am Dutch but I feel very connected to Armenia and it is amazing to think this all started researching dance.

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