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Circle Dance in Remembrance of a Courageous Woman

 GrapevineAutumn 2015, pp 21-22. 

(Quarterly Journal of the Sacred/Circle Dance Network)

By Shakeh Major Tchilingirian 


The entire town of Gylling (about 300 km away from Copenhagen), the birthplace of Karen Jeppe (1876-1934), who saved and cared for thousands of Armenian orphans and women during the Armenian Genocide, came together, along with Armenians from different parts of Denmark, on 2nd May to take part in the ceremonies dedicated to this extraordinary woman and great humanitarian. 


A specially conceived “Circle of Life” dance provided the space in the courtyard of the local school for some 300 Danes and Armenians to join hands and take steps together.  We danced to honour and celebrate the life of Karen Jeppe, who courageously stood against oppression. 


She was a daughter of the beautiful land of Denmark, but became "Eppe Mother" for the thousands of Armenians who found refuge in Aleppo. They found comfort and love under her care.  She lived with her beloved children of Armenia until the end of her life.  


How abhorrent that today history seems to be repeating itself. The beloved city where Karen Jeppe lived most her life and is buried is once again a place of death and destruction nearly a century later. It was only recently that the 13th century Armenian Church and religious complex, along with the Armenian community centers, were reduced to rubble under heavy and senseless bombardment. 


The dance ritual and ceremony was dedicated to Karen Jeppe for what she did, but also for affirming today as Armenians and Danes that one hundred years later the genocidal project of the Ottoman Empire failed. We are still standing and celebrating the lives that were saved and will continue through future generations. 


Karen Jeppe heard about the 1896-1898 massacres of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire while studying medicine in her home country. Shocked by the news of the unfolding events thousands of kilometres away, she left school and decided to join the American and European missionaries working in the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, at the age of 27, Karen Jeppe went to Urfa, where she cared for some 300 orphans and from whom she learned Armenian. She gained the trust, love and respect of the people who were under her care and was known as "Eppe Mother".  Her enormous humanitarian work extended to orphans and refugees during WWI, when 1.5 million Armenians became victims of the Ottoman state-implemented genocide (1915-1923).  She tirelessly lobbied her countrymen for humanitarian assistance during her return to Denmark in 1917 due to illness and returned to her humanitarian mission in Syria as soon as she was well enough. In 1920, she was appointed the head of League of Nations' Commission for the Protection of Women and Children in the Near East and served the needs of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide until her death in 1934 at the relatively young age of 58. She was buried as an Armenian Christian in the Armenian community cemetery in Aleppo.  A school in the city was named after her, the "Karen Jeppe College" (established in 1946), as a gesture of appreciation by thousands of Armenians who owed their lives to her. 

For this Circle of Life Dance ritual I chose two dances. After a brief introduction to the purpose and the intention of this ritual, the dance steps  were briefly demonstrated and the s participants were reminded that the dance steps did not matter as much as the intention of holding hands and taking these steps together. The first dance was an (instrumental only) Gorani with the soul- awakening call of the zurna (lettish horn) and the pulsating drums.  Goranis are song-dances about lost love and lost land and the yearning for them. It was not possible to be indifferent to this 'call'. The second final dance was a Debki typically danced by the surviving generations of Ottoman Armenians.