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Armenian Folk Dance: A Celebration of Life

Shakeh Major Tchilingirian

Song and dance are significant expressions of the Armenian ethos, especially for Armenians living in dispersion. Armenian dance provides a living and evolving link with the historic homeland and present day Armenia. Love and yearning for the homeland or the beloved are central themes in both Armenian folk songs and dances.

The grace of the dancer masks a core of fiery strength, while the drama of the dance comes from combining this strength with graceful wisdom of bending but not breaking - a key to survival.

Men's dances are strong, fast and energetic. Dances from mountainous regions of the homeland show close-linked arms expressing community solidarity and strength. Dances from open plains and plateaus tend to have wider arm movements in harmony with nature. The Armenian woman dances with her head held up high and with a definite open chest, depicting the grace, pride and dignity of the people and confirming deep inner strength.

In women's folk lyrical style, dance draws inspiration from the natural world with gestures illustrating the flow of water or scented breezes (as in the dance Tsaghkats Patent) or the fertile and sacred earth, the protective mountains of the homeland or auspicious animals, like the crane (kroong) or the deer (yeghnik).

These dance movements have deep roots in the earliest dances and rituals of ancient Armenia. Even before Armenia became the first nation to have adopted Christianity as state religion in 301 C.E., Armenians worshipped the land they inhabited for millenniums. Aspects of this reverence for nature have endured in ritual dance steps like heel tapping (to "awaken" the earth beneath) or yeghevni, feet "gliding" (heel-toe-heel side shuffle) mimicking the serpent or the flow of sacred water/river, or the "shoulder shimmy".

Originally everyone in the community would join in closed or open circle(s) where the leader(s) at the beginning of the line were ascribed special status. Men, women and children would all join in. Dances would mark special community occasions, such as births, marriages, harvest, victory at battles, deaths or losses.

Dances to the right tend to mark positivity, abundance, fertility, etc. while group dances to the left (tsakhbar) would only be danced on solemn occasions to mark a loss. Razmakan or battle dances would have traditionally been danced by men only before and after a battle. Dances like een votk (9-steps) or yerek votk (3-steps) would have been danced by unmarried young girls, who would walk along the dried up ravines to "awaken the fertile earth" and initiate life-giving rain and a good harvest. Ritual dances are said to have been conducted along with singing (yerk bar or "song dance"), which gradually evolved to dancing around the central musicians playing the "zurna" (lettish horn) and "dhol" (drum). These ritual dances would typically have lasted some 20 minutes, starting at a slow tempo and gradually getting faster. The zurna player was ascribed very special status and would inherit this role which would be passed along the lineage.

Folk dances and their regional variations - along with the musical and instrumental arrangements -- have evolved over the years in somewhat stylized form in both Armenia and the Diaspora. They continue to be important expressions of the Armenian soul, bridging the present life of the community with ancient Armenian roots.