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The ‘Circle of Life’ in Face of Death

Grapevine, Summer 2015, pp 16-18. 

(Quarterly Journal of the Sacred/Circle Dance Network)

Shakeh Major Tchilingirian


How would you commemorate the centenary of a horrific event in the life of a people? Is it possible to commemorate the dead as well as celebrate the triumph of human spirit of survival?  Such questions lingered in my mind for months as the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on the 24th of April 2015 was approaching.  The Genocide was a state-implemented crime against 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, today’s Turkey.


Folk dance has been an integral part of my life since my childhood. I thought about how I could use this medium in a dignified and appropriate way to bring diverse people -- including "enemies" – together.  After much thought and emotional discernment, I decided to use circle dance to both commemorate the dead, as well as to celebrate the triumph of human spirit.


These questions and artistic quest led me to conceive a circle dance ceremony, which consisted of three dances.  In cooperation with the Armenian and Kurdish student societies at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the “Circle of Life” circle dance ceremony and ritual came to life in March of this year in the open air square of SOAS.


London university students and community members, representing Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Greek, Assyrian and other nationalities, joined hands in solidarity and dignity to commemorate all victims of atrocities around the world, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.


The “Circle of Life” brought young and old people with diverse backgrounds together around a large candle in the centre. Participants wore specially prepared butterfly shaped badges that bore the names of over 50 victim peoples who were subjected to systematic destruction in the last one hundred years, the Holodomor genocide in Ukraine, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the atrocities committed in the Middle East today.


As we joined hands and took steps together, we not only remembered the victims but, more significantly, we affirmed the dignity and value of lost human lives.  By taking part in the Circle of Life, we showed our determination and strength to stand up against injustice and inhuman treatment of fellow human beings.


What Persian poet Saadi had said eight centuries ago resonated in the circle: “The sons of Adam are limbs of each other/ having been created of one essence/ When calamity of time affects one limb/ The other limbs cannot remain at rest./ If you have no sympathy  for the troubles of others/ You are unworthy to be called by the name of a human.”  In Armenian it is said, literally, "There was dance before there was spoken word" and our dance together meant more than words could ever express.


The ritual began when I lit the first candle from a central pillar candle and passed the light to the next person on my left, which continued to be shared until the full circle was lit. An ancient and haunting Armenian hymn, called “Open, O Lord, the door of your mercy/compassion”, was played during this opening part of the ceremony. We then danced three Armenian folk dances: two “gyovands” and a “debki”. We created a human chain in solidarity, harmony, dignity and respect for one another and in memory of the victims of deliberate and systematic destruction around the world.


I selected the dances both for their simplicity and similarity to Turkish and Kurdish dance steps and for their ritual significance. “Gyovands” are typically danced ceremonially by entire communities at weddings as a blessing to the newly weds.  The couple stands forehead to forehead in the centre of the circle, while the community dances seven full circles around them. The symbolic meaning of this “gyovands” for the Circle of Life was its capacity to bring us together as a community for a significant occasion. It was also a “prayer for blessing” of all like-minded human beings. We danced the “gyovands” to two tracks: “Offering” (Ara Dinkjian) and “Sari Gyalin”/”Sari Aghchig” (traditional), a well-known song for both Armenians and Turks. The concluding dance was a “debki” typically danced by Western Armenians who are the surviving descendants of the Genocide. With its very closely linked arm-hold, the “debki” is defiant, grounded and full of hope.


The wider dimension of this ceremony was best described by my husband, Hratch, who co-produced this event, when he said: "Often times Turkish-Armenian relations are overshadowed by the ongoing political, legal and diplomatic dimensions of the Armenian Genocide.  "The Circle of Life" was an attempt to emphasize the essential human and moral dimensions of the societal rupture that genocide causes and the process of reconciliation through living culture.  Culture, like dance, lends itself to bring people together on the human level, as a community of people, who share a culture that is both particular to their ethnic identity and, at the same, bears universal human values."


I have since led different versions of this Circle of Life dance ceremony in Turkey and Denmark and intend to expand its reach.  I believe circle dance offers a powerful medium to connect as well as heal human relations. 


A short film documenting this event is at this link: https://youtu.be/LVu4tADCk9E

(Shakeh Major Tchilingirian, "The ‘Circle of Life’ in Face of Death", Grapevine, Summer 2015, pp. 16-18.)