The Arax Dancers from 2012

Fresno Arax Dancers Embark on Video Project

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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.

The Arax Dancers’ female dancers 2013 in front of St. Mary’s Church in Yettem, California

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 current group of Arax Dancers at the Soghomon Tehlirian monument where they recorded several dance tutorials. From left: Matthew Der Mugrdechian, Kara Statler, Zar Der Mugrdechian, Ariana Garabedian, and Andrew Hagopian. Not pictured: Alexis Nahigian

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.

The current group at the William Saroyan bust in Old Armenian Town (Downtown Fresno). From left: Ariana Garabedian, Kara Statler, Matthew Der Mugrdechian, Zar Der Mugrdechian, and Andrew Hagopian. Not pictured: Alexis Nahigian.

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Kara Statler, a fourth generation Fresno Armenian who joined the Arax Dancers three years ago, echoed these sentiments in describing her enthusiasm for the project. “It’s so important for me to not only learn these dances and connect with my culture myself, but to be able to spread the knowledge as well,” Statler said. “It will make traditional Armenian line dancing more accessible and will hopefully inspire more people to join in at the next picnic.”

The current group at the David of Sassoon statue. From left: Alexis Nahigian, Ariana Garabedian, Zar Der Mugrdechian, Kara Statler, Andrew Hagopian, and Matthew Der Mugrdechian.

Der Mugrdechian drew inspiration for this project from a similar one some 30 years ago when the Arax Dancers recorded video lessons for a Fresno State student’s MBA project. In the process of uploading this footage to YouTube, Der Mugrdechian realized there were not enough video tutorials online for Armenians to learn the traditional dances. “I could not find anybody else that taught the dances slowly, step by step, and filmed from various angles such that it would be easy for people to learn from home,” stated Der Mugrdechian. Her aim is to build upon the first video from the group’s early years to record the full repertoire of the Arax Dancers.

Arax Dancers from the 1970s at the Metropolitan Museum of Fresno for a multicultural event. The group’s current director Zar Der Mugrdechian is pictured leading the line dance.

Though the group has changed members multiple times over the past 45 years, Der Mugrdechian has remained an active member of the Arax Dancers since its founding. In that time, the group only had one 6-year hiatus while Der Mugrdechian, then the group’s director, was the principal of the local Armenian Community School. “For me, dancing is a way to show whoever thinks that they could kill the Armenians that they can’t, and that we are still doing what we have always done,” she explained. “This is one small way for me to ensure that a very beautiful aspect of our culture remains alive for future generations.”

The Arax Dancers male dancers from 2010. From left, Michael Rettig, Philip Der Mugrdechian, Lucas Der Mugrdechian, and Haik Boyadjian

The forthcoming video lessons will be posted on the “Arax Fresno” YouTube profile. The profile currently holds the original 1990s video lessons with 4 dances: the 3-Step Bar, Haleh, Pompooreeg, and Greek Certo. Link: https://youtu.be/g-U5HSnMm58

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