Friday, April 24, 2015 marks one hundred years since the start of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
In my dance workshop last Sunday in Somerset, England, we lit candles to the exquisite voice of the great Armenian soprano Lusine Zakarian, and danced beautiful Armenian dances in a ritual of solidarity with this occasion.
I have been encouraging all my students to dance Armenian dances with their groups this week, most especially on Friday, to align with the commemorations happening around the world. Even if you do not dance, you could simply light a candle and listen to some Armenian music (see my list of recommendations at the end of this post). I feel that every act of compassionate witnessing, however small, helps heal the wounds of history.
Why Armenian dances? I am not Armenian, yet in my thirty years of researching and teaching traditional dances, Armenian dances have held a particular fascination for me, in their poignant melodies and timeless gestures expressing love, longing and homecoming.
Armenian Christianity has also been a tremendous source of inspiration. The Armenian khachkar (‘stone cross’) is magnificently life-affirming, in that the cross, rather than an instrument of suffering, is the Tree of Life, revealing the living wisdom of Christ’s teachings. Since antiquity, the Tree of Life has also represented the Goddess, originally worshipped in Armenia as Anahit, Saris, Nar, and Nune.
Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity, in 301 CE. Perhaps because it developed so early, the Armenian Orthodox church retains features of its nature-reverent origins. A solar symbol appears on every khachkar, embedded in the roots of the Tree to show union and balance, rather than separation, between earth and sky, spirit and matter. These are also the key principles of Armenian traditional dance, which I have been exploring in movement for thirty years.
In 2001 I travelled to Yerevan with my friend and colleague Shakeh Tchilingirian to research traditional women’s dances overlooked by other dance ethnographers. With the CD and booklet we produced there, we were able to bring to our students archaic ritual dances to invoke fertility, end drought, or ask the blessings of the Virgin Mary.
During our time in Armenia, I was deeply touched by the extraordinary hospitality and what I see as the inherent grace and dignity of the Armenian people. Conscious of what they have lost, the Armenians I’ve had the good fortune to meet all over the world are keeping their culture alive through their language, music, dance, faith, family and community.
The Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. One and a half million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were killed, through massacres and forced marches into the deserts of Anatolia (and, yes, Syria). As a result, millions more Armenians now live in the worldwide Diaspora than in the tiny present-day Republic of Armenia.
Turkey today refuses to acknowledge that it was genocide, an act of denial which infinitely compounds Armenians’ pain. The overwhelming majority of historians, academics and institutions of Holocaust and Genocide Studies do, however, recognize the Armenian Genocide, along with dozens of countries including Russia, France, Germany, and forty-three US states. Because I also love Turkey and Turkish dances, I spent years thoroughly researching in order to decide for myself, and I also conclude that it was genocide; the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent women, children and elders did not happen ‘in combat’.
Anniversaries of this nature bring up the pain of the original event, as well as the additional pain of seeing the same cruelty continue unchecked in our time, when we had hoped we would have learned by now. But these commemorations are also an opportunity to bring our pain into the presence of that which comforts, witnesses and heals, and here is where dance and music can help us when words sometimes fail.
My friend Shakeh Tchilingirian led an event recently at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, inviting Armenians, Turks, Kurds and Assyrians to dance together for reconciliation, in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide and other atrocities around the world (a touching new film, Circle of Life, documents this event). As part of the ceremony, Shakeh prepared 50 paper butterflies, each representing a distinct ethnic group targeted by genocide within the last century. Fifty groups in 100 years – and that isn’t even all of them!
What do we do when faced with historical atrocities on such a scale?
George Santayana famously warned that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, and yet, as this history of annihilation repeats itself again and again in our time we seem to have become, in the words of Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, ‘amnesiacs without curiosity.’
But it doesn’t have to be this way. All it takes to wake up and recover both memory and curiosity is for each of us to choose: to think more carefully, to inform ourselves more fully, and to ask how we can be of practical help in this situation. Then we simply take the first step. Practical action is extraordinarily empowering, whether we sign petitions, speak truthfully in public, or join hands together and dance.
You don’t have to be Armenian. In fact, only when we who are not directly affected by a tragedy rouse ourselves to care about it, can we truly shift the dynamic of oppression in our world and reclaim the power to create a society of justice and peace.
So please join us this week, in spirit, in dance, in prayer and in whatever way you can, to send compassion, support and strength to the worldwide Armenian community, and to all ethnic groups and dispossessed peoples who have faced the devastation of exile and genocide. Together we can affirm the survival of all that is most valuable in the human family, and thus make conscious choices for a better future.
See these additional resources to learn more:
Website: The Armenian Genocide Centennial site has links to stories and information on many worldwide events taking place this month.
Film on Youtube: Shakeh Tchilingirian’s Circle of Life in Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide and Atrocities around the World.
The Guardian article: Barack Obama will not label 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide.
BBC News article: Armenian tragedy still raw in Turkey 100 years on, by Mark Lowen (22 April 2015, Istanbul) and The Armenian Rugs that Tell Two Stories
NPR Stories: Friday Marks Centennial Of Armenian Mass Killings During World War I and Turks And Armenians Prepare For Dueling Anniversaries On Friday
Museum: Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Mass.
Dance: Armenian Lyrical Dances with Laura Shannon this summer at the Findhorn Sacred Dance Festival July 25-31, 2015.
The Crossing Place: Journey Among the Armenians, by Philip Marsden
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel
Armenian Folk Arts, Culture, and Identity, by Levon Abrahamian, Nancy Sweezy, Sam Sweezy
Gorani: Traditional Dances from the Armenian Homeland
Shoghaken Ensemble: Traditional Dances of Armenia
Djivan Gasparyan: I Will Not Be Sad in This World; Moon Shines at Night, Apricots From Eden, etc.
Norayr Kartashyan: Tsarastan
Khatchatour Avetisyan: Oratorio in Memory of the Victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915
Erkan Ogur and Djivan Gasparyan: Fuad
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.