When Satenik Ashikyan was offered a job at an Armenian news outlet in Los Angeles in 2002, she packed up her life in Yerevan, Armenia and made the move. What she never could have imagined, however, is that she would become a key player in an international movement to preserve an ancient tradition — Armenian folk dance.
It’s a Tuesday evening, and Ashikyan stands in the center of a spacious dance studio in downtown Glendale. She is poised and professional, wearing black dance sneakers. Her hair is neatly pulled back from her face. She greets her students one by one as they trickle in, exchanging hugs and “hellos,” or “barev” in Armenian.
Ashikyan is the co-founder and dance instructor of FolkLorik, an Armenian traditional folk dance group, established in 2012. Although the group is relatively new, many of the dances they practice date to the first century and pre-Christian Armenia. Traditional dance, Ashikyan explains, is deeply rooted in paganism.
According to legend, St. Gregory the Illuminator converted Armenia to Christianity in 301-3 AD. The story goes that St. Gregory, also known as Grigor Lusavorich, was thrown in a well and remained there for 13 years for preaching Christianity. He eventually appealed to the then-king of Armenia, Tiridates the Great, and converted him. St. Gregory then became the first bishop (Catholicos) of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which was built in “The Holy City,” Ejmiatzin.
As Armenia embraced the new faith, religious leaders ordered pagan temples torn down, denouncing rituals and worship associated with pagan beliefs. These included spiritual dances, which were originally used in pagan ceremonies to celebrate life and worship nature. “Liturgy, music and prayer were kept and redesigned to fit into the religious practice,” Ashikyan explains. “Dance was not.”
However, Armenians found a way to preserve their tradition; incorporating dance into religious celebrations and holidays, or gatherings that took place outside the Church. Thus, dance found its place among Christian Armenians, and continued to be practiced and passed down.
Ashikyan’s interest in dance goes back to her childhood in Armenia, when she observed traditional dancing at weddings and celebrations. After moving to Los Angeles, she noticed something peculiar taking place: “People at Armenian weddings would make a circle, but not know what to do after that,” she says. “They had the intuition and the spirit to dance, but they either forgot, or didn’t know what dances to do.”
Ashikyan soon realized what was needed: a way to help make traditional dance a part of the everyday lives of Armenians in the LA diaspora.
The dances performed at FolkLorik are different than those practiced in most other Armenian dance groups in Los Angeles. They are the fruits of labor of a few dance luminaries who have dedicated their lives to documenting and teaching traditional dances that go back thousands of years to the remote villages of historic Armenia. These are the dances that remained untouched and uninfluenced by Russian style during Armenia’s time as a Soviet state.
Two of the most prominent figures in the movement to preserve traditional dances are Gagik Ginosyan and Tom Bozigian, both Ashikyan’s long-time teachers and confidants. Ginosyan lives in Yerevan and currently leads the movement to reincorporate traditional dance into religious celebrations and urban spaces. Bozigian, 82, is a Los Angeles local and attends this evening’s class. He began collecting dances as a child, after learning them from the first generation of Armenian Genocide survivors who originally fled to Southern California. The members of FolkLorik regard Bozigian as “The Legend.”
Ashikyan walks to the center of her classroom, which is now full of students ranging in age from 25 to 82. She demonstrates a few dance steps, giving detailed explanations of arm placements and tempo.
“OK…Ejmiatzin!” she says. Music blares from the speakers, and the dance commences. In addition to being “The Holy City,” or where the first Armenian Apostolic Church was built, Ejmiatzin is also the name of a traditional folk dance.
“It is believed to have been used in pagan ceremonies to worship the sun,” says Ashikyan. “The dance imitates the sun’s rays.”
Indeed, as the dancers raised their arms toward the sky with their hands clasping one another’s, their half-circle formation resembled the image of a rising sun. After 301-3 AD, the dance took on Christian meaning and became more widely accepted as celebration of the Ejmiatzin Church.
“Some believe the raising of the arms represents the dome of the church,” Ashikyan explains.
Ejmiatzin isn’t the only dance rooted in pagan traditions and beliefs. Many traditional dances are related or dedicated to change of nature, fertility, death, and new life. In some traditional dances, steps like stamping are believed to have symbolized the “fight against evil or the devil.” The circular nature of the dance formations also carries ancient symbolic significance, with the circle representing the “circle of life.” In many dances the left leg often remains outside of the circle because, as Ashikyan explains, the left was associated with negativity.
“In Armenia we say that if something’s going wrong, it’s going left. It’s just a saying now, but it comes from paganism,” she says.
‘More Than Dancing’
Traditional dance is no longer viewed or practiced by Armenians as worship. It now holds more of a cultural and social significance— the pagan symbolism lost over time and adapted to fit Christianity.
The class moves on to another dance— a Kochari, or a regional dance. Smiles cross the faces of the dancers as they link arms to form a single straight line. One man, Arsen Gulesserian, looks particularly focused as he chants the counts aloud to himself, and occasionally calls out the next step for his neighbors. Gulesserian is a regular, travelling two and a half hours round trip nearly every Tuesday for the past four years to attend FolkLorik classes. Born in Istanbul, and living in the United States for 41 years, he is skillful and quick on his feet at age 76.
“Culture, social activity, exercise,” he says, “These are the dances our great, great grandparents knew.”
For many FolkLorik dancers, connection to Armenian history, culture, and community is the primary reason they enjoy practicing traditional dance each week. But for some, spirituality and religion play a big role in how they experience traditional dance.
“When the music starts, I feel something in my blood,” says Nune Torosyan, another FolkLorik dancer. “I think it’s my connection with the ground. In structure, physically, the traditional dances are more up and down, so the connection is with ground and God, ground and God,” she says, motioning upward.
Torosyan dances with ease and grace, almost meditative in the way she moves. For her, everything is connected to Christianity. “The church is not just a physical building. Your body is a church, and the unity of people in a space is a church,” she says.
In the last part of class, Ashikyan gathers the group together for one final circle dance. Dancers link their pinky fingers together: connectedness while maintaining individuality and distance. The music begins, and the floor begins to vibrate as feet meet the ground with force.
Though this is an ordinary Tuesday night for FolkLorik dancers, they sense a larger force uniting them. With every class and every dance, they are keeping an ancient tradition alive for generations to come.
“This is definitely more than dancing,” Ashikyan says. “It’s where people come to find and express their Armenian-ness.”