Tom Bozigian posing with davoul drum

Experts Team Up to Preserve Armenian Folk Dance

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BERLIN — If a folklorist said they had found a hidden remnant of pre-Genocide Armenian culture, one might think they had been doing research in a remote valley in Armenia, a rural community in the Middle East, or among the forgotten Islamized “Hamshen” Armenians of the Pontic Mountains in Turkey.

What about Springfield, Mass.? Talk about hidden in plain sight.

For reasons that are still not entirely clear, researchers have increasingly begun to recognize that the established communities traced from the early Armenian immigrants to the US, while successful, Westernized, and assimilated in many ways, have preserved a wealth of folk dance and music that has been forgotten in other Diasporan communities and is little known in contemporary Armenia.

Carolyn Rapkievian in traditional dance attire

In other words, if one wants to speak fluent Western Armenian, they might need an immersion experience in a place like Beirut; but if one wants to learn how to dance the “Tamzara” the way it was done in the villages of Western Armenia, the best bet might be to live in Boston for a while or better yet, Fresno.

And the practitioners and champions of those dances are uniting from all over the world, eventually attending a summit this summer (more on that further down).

Generations raised on the style that has come to be known as kef music enjoy dancing to the strains of oud, clarinet, and dumbeg. The genre has often been accused by critics as merely replicating the Turkish-language hit parade of turn-of-the-century Istanbul. That’s partially true, as any glance at a classic unrestricted set list will tell you. But alongside the Turkish popular/folk music, which is increasingly being kept to a minimum, the folk dances of Western Armenia like “Tamzara,” “Haleh/Kochari,” “Papouri,” “Lorke” and many others have consistently been played (in their authentic form) and consistently been danced by the adoring fans of artists like Onnik Dinkjian, John Berberian, Hachig Kazarian and Richard Hagopian. This music and dance has retained its popularity in old-established US diaspora communities like Detroit, Philadelphia, New England, and Fresno.

Robert Haroutunian, far left, with Aradzani Dance Group in New York

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But even in these storied communities, traditional folk dance is not in its pristine condition. Traditional dances have given way in the late 20th century to Diasporan folk dances invented by Armenian-American teenagers, and there is a general lack of understanding of the history of the dance. These treasures are hidden in plain sight, often with an emphasis on the word “hidden,” since current generations no longer remember their origins. Depending on who you are talking to, if you ask about “Tamzara” you might be a shown one of several traditional village steps (by someone who is a great dancer, but doesn’t know what village the steps came from), a Diaspora version based on those steps, or a completely made-up dance that emerged in New England in the 1960s and shares little with the true “Tamzara” aside from its music. The latter (readers may know it from its famous hand clapping) is actually the most well-known among younger generations. Yet, practically every town in historic Western Armenia had its own variation of that dance with different steps and even a different melody — and at one time, many of those were still being danced at picnics across New England, the Midwest and Central California.

Meanwhile, folk dance was heavily promoted in Armenia during the Soviet Era, but predominantly in a “choreographed” form. Influenced by Russian and European ballet, elaborately choreographed stage productions based on Armenian folk dance steps were developed to wow theatrical audiences across the Soviet Union as well as in the West. While artistically pleasing, folklore and dance as a social phenomenon was somewhat pushed to the side in order to prove that the “proletariat” could produce “high art” as a confirmation of Communist ideology and as a way to compete with European culture. When the state dance troupes of Soviet Armenia toured the Diaspora, many copied their dramatic style, erroneously believing that it was more “authentic” merely because it came from the homeland. Knowledge of traditional dance suffered as a result.

Tom Bozigian

“The other point is that most of the Armenians performing all over, in Armenia, in the Diaspora, do the dances that were created for the stage,” says Carolyn Rapkievian, one of the dance researchers involved in a new project to document traditional Armenian dance. “There’s a lot of copying of that style. I’m a dancer, I really love all kinds of dance, but let’s find out the real origins of the dance. Was it made up in this country, was it made up in the Soviet Union for the stage?”

While practitioners recognize that folk dance is a living art form, and there is nothing wrong with later evolutions of the dance, at the same time, they wish to document and understand the history of the original dances, while learning and passing on the steps and the style to future generations. Not only that, but under threat of assimilation in the United States, much of this traditional Western Armenian dance culture could be lost if it is not documented. For this reason, a team of dance experts from across the United States have teamed up with the Berlin-based Houshamadyan Project to document the accumulated knowledge of traditional dance that was brought to the US by Armenian Genocide survivors.

Gary Lind-Sinanian

The Dance Master

Tom Bozigian was born in Los Angeles and raised in Fresno. His father, one of the early eastern Armenian immigrants to settle in the LA area, came from the Catholic Armenian villages of Shirak (the region around Gyumri in modern Armenia) while his mother, a native of Fresno, hailed from a family of immigrants from Western Armenia’s Kharpert region, in present Eastern Turkey. Bozigian was brought up with traditions of both Western and Eastern Armenia from relatives that had grown up in those places before the Genocide and before the Soviet Era. Traditional folk dance of all Armenian regions was to become his specialty.

Perhaps even more influential than this dual background was being raised in the burgeoning and culturally traditional Armenian community of Fresno, where, as immortalized by William Saroyan, Armenian grape growers tried to preserve an Anatolian village lifestyle to some degree on American soil.

“In 1944 I began Saturday Day School at St. Paul Armenian Apostolic Church,” Bozigian states. “I was 6 years old. We studied Armenian language, traditional song/dance and Armenian plays. I grew up in Fresno finishing graduate school and lived there 25 years. I learned songs and dances of Armenian immigrants from Sepastia, Kayseri, Kharpert, Cheungeush, Sev Dzov (Hemshen), Erzenga, Erzeroum, Artveen, Ardahan, Alashgert (my Paternal side), Moosh, Bitlis, Sasoon, Seghert. Then playing music rebounded off my experiences.”

Susan Lind-Sinanian

Moving to LA in the late 1960s where he worked as an educator, Bozigian studied ballet, as well as Armenian folk dance with choreographer Jora Markaryan, leading to an invitation to study at the Sayat Nova State Choreographic School of Soviet Armenia in the early 1970s. He graduated from the academy and returned to Los Angeles in 1975, where he has taught Armenian folk dance ever since. He not only teaches dance classes worldwide but performs as a percussionist and vocalist with his own ensemble. He has made it his life’s mission to preserve the Armenian folk dances brought to the United States by the original Armenian immigrants, in some cases, preserved nowhere else in the world.

In recent years, Bozigian has won recognition from ethnographic authorities in Armenia thanks to his work. One of Bozigian’s frequent collaborators is Gagik Ginosyan of Armenia. Ginosyan, recognized as the leading ethnographic dance expert in Armenia today, is promoting the teaching of Armenian folk dances in their original “unchoreographed” form. Coming up under the influence of Hayrik Mouradian, who brought traditional folklore and dance to Soviet Armenia from the Van-Vaspouragan region, Ginosyan has formed his own group, “Karin” to perpetuate the original dances. With the help of Bozigian, Ginosyan has added many regional dances to his repertoire, which survived in the US but not in Armenia. In some cases, he has been able to revive dances which have travelled quite a circuitous route; Ginosyan learned the dance “Kham-khama” from Bozigian, who learned it more than 50 years ago from a musician named Jimmy Haboian in California, who had learned it from the Kurdish immigrant community in his native Detroit. Ginosyan and Bozigian reintroduced the dance in Yerevan, and the results are all over YouTube.

Dance Team, Assemble

Bozigian has become a one-man institution, but at age of 83, he felt it was time to make sure his legacy gets passed on. So, just before the pandemic, he approached Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian of the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown. The couple has been engaged in the preservation of all things Armenian (like history, folklore, and folk dance) in the New England area for decades, and Gary, though not of Armenian birth, has become one of the top authorities in the US on the dances of the early immigrants.

Gary Lind-Sinanian contacted Carolyn Rapkievian, who has been active in promoting traditional dance for years in the DC area, to organize a Zoom meeting, and Robert Haroutunian, the leading expert in the New York metro area was added to the group.

Rapkievian, born in Massachusetts, has worked in museum curator for many years including with the Smithsonian and was instrumental in the featuring of Armenia at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, as well as Onnik Dinkjian’s awarding of the National Heritage Fellowship honor from the National Endowment for the Arts. She grew up attending Armenian picnics at Camp Ararat in Maynard, Mass. in the 1960s, where she learned the folk dances and culture of her Kharpert, Gesaria and Sepastia ancestry. She was the leader of the Arax Dance Ensemble in Washington, DC from 2004-2015 and the Arev Dance Ensemble, also in DC, from 2015-2020, before she and her husband retired to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Carolyn Rapkievian

Robert Haroutunian is the leader of the Aradzani Dance Ensemble affiliated with Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, Queens, which aims to perpetuate traditional unchoreographed dance. Much of his repertoire is based on the research of the late Arsen Anoushian, a dance expert who led the Armenian Folk Dance Society of New York in the late 20th century, which had collected dances from the original immigrants particularly from the Van, Erzurum (Garin) and Sepastia regions.

Bozigian, the Lind-Sinanians, Rapkievian and Haroutunian had not worked together before as a group, but they had a mission to accomplish for posterity. According to Rapkievian, the group wanted to “make sure that the dances people don’t do anymore get passed on and even perhaps revived.”

“We started talking once a month about what we wanted to do together,” says Rapkievian, “And we brainstormed a lot of different ideas. And I said, ‘why don’t we try to do a virtual archive.’ We could collect video that’s out there and record new if we wanted to. And the group thought that was a good idea and I started looking for organizations or institutions to partner with or host us.”

Due to the need for a reliable, dedicated website to host the dance videos for public dissemination, Rapkievian began exploring dance archives and Armenian organizations. She knew of Houshamadyan, the Berlin-based web archive whose mission is “to reconstruct and preserve the memory of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire through research.” Led by history professor Dr. Vahe Tachjian, the Houshamadyan Project has been making the history and culture of historic Western Armenia available to the masses through the online medium since 2010.  They publish articles and videos in English, Armenian, and Turkish on information that was once only available in out-of-print thick Armenian-language tomes printed in the US or the Middle East in the mid-20th-century. These books, often dedicated to the memory of everything about the Armenian life in a single village, town, or region, were known as houshamadyanner (memory-books).

“Vahe was very excited,” says Rapkievian, “and we agreed to collaborate.”

“We had already agreed before contacting Houshamadyan to get together and dance together,” says Rapkievian. “To convene a kind of summit of ourselves to make sure we were doing the steps the same way and in the same style.”

The Dance Summit

The planned meeting ended up being joined and cosponsored by Houshamadyan. Ani Boghikian Kasparian of Michigan was tasked as a liaison between the overall Houshamadyan group and the dance project. Kasparian is part of the board of Houshmadyan USA, a 501(c)(3) group that was founded in order to make it easier for US residents to donate to the initiatives of the Berlin-based organization.

And so, the dance leaders converged on Boston in August in order to film the first 20 dances. They were joined by Bozigian’s wife, Sheree King. The videography was provided by Houshamadyan and took place in the hall of the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington. Live music was provided by the ensemble of oud master John Berberian with Mal Barsamian (clarinet), Bruce Gigarjian (guitar) and Ron Tutunjian (dumbeg). There were also a couple of dances that were performed simply to vocal singing by the dancers, which was traditional in Historic Armenia.

Rapkievian states that “primarily Tom [Bozigian] and Gary [Lind-Sinanian] have been writing the written dance directions to do these steps. But you can’t really learn to do a dance from written instructions,” thus the need for the videos. The written notes are best used as an aid to memory for someone who already knows the dance, Rapkievian added. Of course, video isn’t ideal either, but it’s extremely valuable from a preservation standpoint. “We are trying very hard to find community recordings of dances that may be on film in people’s attics or garages. The first dance we chose to publish, was one which I found years ago, a video at a picnic of some older men doing the ‘Govdun’ dance.”

The picnic took place in Indian Orchard, Mass., a suburb of Springfield. Still home to a vibrant Armenian community, most early settlers hailed from the region of Sepastia (now Sivas, Turkey). The signature dance of the men of Sepastia’s village of Govdun has been passed down in this community while little-known elsewhere. In fact, New England musicians colloquially refer to the melody as “Springfield Sepo.” (“Sepo” is a slang term for a person from Sepastia.)

The Govduntsi dance was chosen as one of the 20 documented at the August summit. The video as well as information on the dance and its history can be found at https://www.houshamadyan.org/mapottomanempire/vilayet-of-sivas/govdoun/local-characteristics/dance.html

Houshamadyan is issuing a call for donations to aid the dance project. The dance researchers are also looking for photographs and video which are dance related from the early Armenian immigrants in the US. The group hopes to document all the dances that have been passed down and are known by experts and teachers in the US Diaspora. They further plan to have a second “dance summit” in the Detroit area this summer.

“In my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the original village line dances were passed down,” says Rapkievian, “because this was an expression of our identity, and it’s important to maintain our identity,” noting that the picnics hosted by compatriotic unions, or clubs for Armenians who originated in the same city, village, or region, were the venue for passing down these traditions.

She says the group is currently looking for more photographs and videos, and deciding on the next 20 dances to be recorded, hopefully this summer in Detroit.

Rapkievian notes that the dances which were created by Armenian-American teenagers in the 50s and 60s are a valid form of culture too. They were created based on traditional movements, she says.

“Maybe after we try to record all the village dance, we’ll try to do the American born dances too.”

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