FRESNO – For over 40 years, the Arax Dancers of Fresno have played an integral role in preserving traditional Armenian dances in California’s Central Valley. Before the pandemic, the Arax Dancers regularly held dancing workshops for the public and showcased traditional dances at community multicultural events. Now, in light of the global shutdown, the Arax Dancers are preparing a video project to preserve and make accessible their rich repertoire of Western Armenian dances.
In October 2020, as the pandemic showed no signs of ebbing, Director Zar Der Mugrdechian decided she did not want to leave her five current students idle for long, declaring: “I wanted to find an activity that would keep their interest in the group alive while also fulfilling our mission to promote Armenian dance.” She decided on a project that would both engage her students and the community at large; to video record traditional dance lessons.
Der Mugrdechian noted that Fresno’s rich Armenian history makes it an ideal setting for such a project. After the genocide, Fresno became an attractive destination for Armenians from a variety of different villages because of its agricultural land and climate. “Because of this, we have a large diversity of Armenian village dances represented in Fresno,” Der Mugrdechian explained. “Not only do we have this rich diversity of dances, but we have the knowledge of oud master Richard Hagopian, who learned his craft from genocide survivors and is now passing it on to his grandson Andrew.”
According to Der Mugrdechian, Hagopian’s knowledge of the full repertoire of songs that accompany each traditional dance ensures that the Fresno community has ample opportunity to practice them at church picnics. In this way, the Fresno Armenian community has been able to maintain its diverse dance scene over multiple generations.
The Arax Dancers decided to highlight Fresno’s rich Armenian history by recording their video lessons at landmarks such as the David of Sassoon statue, the Armenian Genocide Monument at Fresno State, the Soghomon Tehlirian monument, and the bust of William Saroyan in Fresno’s Old Armenian Town. Der Mugrdechian begins each video lesson by explaining the significance of the location and the history of each dance the group will be teaching. “This will help document our local history and our folk dances that were brought over from our homeland. It will be a tool for people to learn and hopefully enjoy them as much as we do,” Der Mugrdechian explained.