A People's Culture. Armenian dance takes on Soviet touches

As intricate music unwinds from a tape recorder, young women move to the corners of the stage. In their floor-length rose dresses, veils, and flat, crownlike hats, they move steadily, without a rustle. But their hands pluck and fly and glide with varying degrees of grace, and they keep an eye on them, as if they were writing or painting in the air. The men are dressed in Cossack-style pants, soft boots, and white satin shirts. They take their turn, teasing the women, stomping in a line, or going solo.

A young girl in a white veil and pink dress gestures to the audience, looking us right in the eye as she dances a story about a rose and its thorn. Another little girl waves her arms and frisks around an imaginary happy valley.

This is the Sipan Dance Group, finishing up the Worcester Art Museum's summer-long festival of Armenian culture. The audience, mainly Armenian, loves it. The women sitting on both sides of me beam and comment in Armenian and English, and the dancers seem to be smiling back. It looks like a happy affirmation of their common heritage.

But these dances weren't handed down, as one might expect, from past generations to those on the stage. The dancers learned their repertoire by watching videotapes of the State Ensemble of Soviet Armenia. Hagop Kesheshian, a specialist in choreographing ethnic dance for groups like Sipan, showed the members the tapes and then taught them the dances.

``I cannot say everything is really 100 percent Armenian,'' Mr. Kesheshian said. ``You have to change.'' For example, he explained, ``I don't like slow dances. People today like fast things. That's what people ask for.'' And that's what they get from the State Ensemble of Soviet Armenia, and from Kesheshian and the Sipan group, though traditional Armenian dance is slower.

Of course, any folk dance is changed when it goes from being a dance you do with friends to being performed for an audience, Susan Lind-Sinanian points out. Ms. Lind-Sinanian teaches traditional Armenian dance and researches old dances. She explained that the type of dancing the Sipan dancers do in their shows is one of three forms Armenian dance has taken in the diaspora the culture has been going through since 1915, when many Armenians were killed or scattered from their homeland:

Party dancing, a mixture of American and Armenian dance done by teen-agers in the 1950s, is still evolving.

Stage dancing by groups around the country is based on the State Ensemble of Soviet Armenia repertoire. Choreographers are often products of special schools in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic which systematize the dance and teach how to break it down and recombine it. Lind-Sinanian says the same process is applied to Hungarian and Polish folk dance, and all three come out with a great deal of Russian influence.

Traditional Armenian dance, brought to this country by survivors of the 1915 killings, is much more subtle, she says. This dance is being lost because the music it is danced to has fallen out of favor and the children of the immigrants haven't learned it. For Armenians scattered around the world just after 1915, ``dancing wasn't that important.'' The most important way to keep their culture was their language.

The Sipan Dance Group was formed in 1983 to welcome Karekin II, the Holy See of Antilias, who was visiting from Lebanon that year.

When young people in the Armenian Holy Trinity Apostolic Church of Worcester began getting the group together, Mrs. Ardemis Toshoian saw how much work they were doing and formed a committee to help them. She designed their costumes and now acts as business manager and agent. Women from the church sew the costumes. The group now has a 400-piece wardrobe. Its repertoire of more than 20 dances was amplified this summer when Lucine Hagopian, the 12-year-old who performed the rose dance, traveled with her fa mily to Soviet Armenia to visit relatives and learned some dances from a group there.

In addition to being members of the Sipan group, most of the dancers have full-time jobs. They practice after church on Sundays. Garo Bekiarian, a dancer whose father is the priest of the church, says he is not just in it for the dancing. ``It's a cultural thing. . . . After church we dance, we get together, we tell jokes.''

Sitting in Mrs. Toshoian's living room after the show, they talk in Armenian and English, nibble on snacks she brings out on platters, do each other's dances, and occasionally break out in song. Only three members of the group grew up in Worcester. The others come from Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As they squeeze together on the couch for a snapshot, it looks as if, for the moment, the diaspora has come together a bit.

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