Haygagan Bar Part 4: Community as Homeland

Written by Abbie Tarpinian Porto

28 June 2024

This piece is part of a research series that will be released in five parts, over a period of 5 weeks. You can find parts onetwo, and three here.

Photo from Lernazang Ensemble. This article was originally written as a thesis for the MA Program in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, and has been adapted for publication here.

It’s summer, and Gaïdz is at the AYF Olympics, an annual athletic event for AYF chapters across the US and Canada. This year it’s in Providence, Rhode Island, a city that he has never even been close to before. Hanging out in their small hotel room before tonight’s party, Gaïdz’s friends decide to teach him the shurchbars they know. Someone turns on the speaker and starts playing the musicians they’ll be hearing in less than an hour, like Onnik Dinkjian, Ara Dinkjian, Mal Barsamian, and John Berberian, music featuring a mix of oud, drum, clarinet, saxophone, sometimes other accompanying instruments, and often vocals. Gaïdz’s friends turn to him and say, “Alright! So we’re gonna teach you some of these dances so that when you get down there, you know what you’re doing.” They practice the steps together in the tiny room, running into the wall, moving back, and starting the dance over again. Hopping, shuffling, stumbling, and laughing, the friends dance together, just the three of them, moments before joining a party full of other Armenians ready to dance with them.

In Gaïdz’s own words, “I’m in this room with two guys that I’ve barely known for a year, but I feel like I have deep sort of brotherhood, kinship, with. And they’re teaching me these dances that their families have brought over with them 150, 100 years ago. And they’re imparting on this, not only West Coast sort of transplant, but also someone who comes from a very different, but also emotionally similar, cultural context.”

As the organizer of his school’s Armenian Students Association, Gaïdz works to create a sense of community among Armenians from vastly different origins:

Somehow I was getting connected with all these different Armenians like, “Oh, yeah, like, I’m half Armenian, my mom’s from London, but like I grew up in Calabasas,” I was like, okay, cool. So I met him. And there’s this girl like, “I’m half Armenian. My mom’s from Boston.” Her family actually runs this lahmajun shop that my friend’s family now owns, it’s just crazy, small world. I met her, and we have a lot of mutual friends. And then I met this half Armenian kid from Montreal, who I knew since my first day at school, and is probably one of my closest friends at this school, right? And I was like, “Wait! Why haven’t you been coming?” Pull them in. Met this half Armenian, half Black kid from Boston who’s more patriotic and more deeply wound up in these things than I could ever be that I’ve been connected to through the AYF and stuff like that, right? There’s this kid from New York, who’s full Armenian, but who’s like fourth generation New Yorker. Right? Like all these different types of Armenian. I mean. And then, like, the Armenian squad, right? The international students from Armenia, you know. Like you have this whole hodgepodge of Armenians from very different backgrounds, and I was like, alright. It’s tough. Because how do you? How do you articulate things so that it’s accessible to everyone but that’s also rich in content? That’s a really tough balance to strike. 

His challenge here is to bring together people with varying understandings of what it means to be Armenian while making sure everyone feels welcome. Thinking back on his own experiences, Gaïdz remembers dance being a powerful way to connect diverse Armenians. At the 2021 AYF Olympics, Gaïdz encountered East Coast shurchbar for the first time:

The music sounds familiar, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in person like this. And then one person sort of grabs another person, and then other people sort of excitedly nudge one another and go join. Next thing you know it, you have 20-25 people dancing in unison with one another, a shurchbar that I’ve never seen in my life before. That 20 person dance becomes a 40 person dance becomes a 100 person dance becomes a 300 person dance, and then everyone’s in it, and everyone’s sweating, and the dance speeds up and it becomes more intense. And being on the sidelines and seeing that is, I mean, it’s incredible, but it’s also scary if you don’t know it. It’s like, this is a different culture. This is a completely different world. I’ve had some great friends who’ve pulled me into those moments. Like literally, physically, like, “Gaïdz, come here!” and they pulled my hand into the dance, and then I’m like, “Dude, I have no idea what’s going on.” I’m fumbling. They’re moving too fast for me, I’m tripping over my feet, but you’re learning through it and figuring out, okay, I’ve got like one part of it, and so I’m gonna just keep doing that part over and over again. But there is this also element of being pulled into it. You’re not sort of ostracized, and you’re not pushed out to the boundary, like out to the periphery of those dance spaces which is really neat. And I think if it wasn’t for that, if it was, “Gaïdz, you’re an outsider, you’re from LA. Stay in your lane.” I think my relationship would have been different.

This kind of Armenian dance, that Gaïdz had never known before, elicited particular feelings of community and belonging that he had not encountered during his childhood in LA. Remembering how he felt dancing with other Armenians on the East Coast, Gaïdz decided to share this practice with his ASA. At the end of every meeting, he turned on some music and taught his friends the dances he had learned:

[Dancing] became like a way of orienting the group. Or like, it was an instructional thing, but it was also a way of bringing together this band of really different, these Armenians from these different walks of life and different relationships to their Armenian identity, and it was fun… being in a room on a campus where there’s like .05% Armenians, dancing dances from 100 years ago, to which we all have this sort of fractional relationship to, but it’s like, in none of our lived experiences did we regularly dance these East Coast shurchbars, right? But here we are learning them, and it’s a way for us to sort of speak to one another, but also speak to that sort of common heritage. So yeah, I mean, we kept practicing that together and whatnot, and that became a whole thing.

Gaïdz used the dance with which he had connected to then create connection and community with other Armenians in a new space. In this way, Armenians use dance as a means of unification. When a diverse group of Armenians gets together, dance can serve as a way to connect these people with different experiences into a group of people with a shared experience of dance.

Developing this unity is important because the sense of community creates a kind of surrogate homeland in diaspora. The communities of Armenians throughout the diaspora allow for people to actively maintain their Armenian identities and to feel connected to a place where they do not live. Diasporans in community are able to navigate these identities and feelings together, as parts of the same whole. As Van puts it, one person cannot solely make up a diasporic community:

I don’t think there’s any such thing as like, a one-man diaspora. So, if you, as an Armenian, don’t at least try to connect with other Armenians in the diaspora, then you’re making yourself a one-man diaspora, and those don’t exist. Look, it doesn’t have to mean involvement. It doesn’t have to mean setting up organizations. It doesn’t have to mean starting schools or churches. It honestly just means that if a random, non-Armenian person came to your town and said, “Hi, stranger, I, for some reason, need a list of all the Armenians in this town,” you could say, “Yeah, they’re there, there, and there.” You know. You have a network of Armenians, you keep in touch in your own ways. You don’t have to keep in touch in Armenian. You don’t have to eat Armenian food when you see each other. You don’t have to do Armenian things when you see each other. That’s all up to you. But I think the core backbone of the diaspora is maintaining a network of all of us.

The crucial element of cultural maintenance, then, is simply being visibly Armenian together. The rest is open for different ideas and expressions. As long as Armenians are together, they can decide how to continue to be Armenian in their particular contexts. Growing up in Chicago, Levon appreciated the group of Armenians that raised him and connected him to his Armenianness. In his context,

Growing up in the Midwest as a diasporan Armenian, you kind of rely on the community to provide Armenian experiences and Armenian traditions and Armenian everything. So going to AYF meetings, going to community events, going to dance, going to Armenian school. All of those things, going to Camp Haiastan in the summers, right? All of those things contribute an element [to what makes me Armenian], along with my family.

Levon expresses his Armenianness through his community. The events he attends and the activities he participates in allow him to engage in his Armenianness. Without other Armenians, there is no place for this engagement. Stressing the element of community, Lilit also mentions the AYF and its summer camp as formative in her life as an Armenian:

I went to an Armenian summer camp, an AYF summer camp in Franklin, Massachusetts, called Camp Haiastan. I went there for so many years. I think the first time I went was when I was like 10, and then I worked there for a few years, too. Every Saturday night we had dances, and it was so much fun because you got to know, especially line dances, maybe not traditional Armenian dances, but you know the tamzara60 and all of that kind of stuff that a lot of Armenians will know exactly what the dance moves are regardless of where they grew up in the US or other countries. [We all] come together, and us being so young as kids, able to express ourselves that way, too. And so that’s some of my favorite memories, like meeting people at that camp and being able to dance with them on Saturday nights. And just listen to traditional Armenian music and be able to connect with our culture that way, I think, is one, like, some of my favorite memories ever. And also when I was a counselor, being able to teach the kids the dances if they didn’t know it, and just have fun that way.

Here, Armenians use dance to welcome children into an Armenian community. Lilit’s fond memories of dancing as a kid at summer camp blend into her time as a counselor (an established member of the community) teaching younger kids (new members) how to dance as Armenians. From the perspective of the learner, Van describes his childhood experience with dance:

At the Saturday school, I just called that hay tbrots,61 which means Armenian school. It was about four hours every Saturday, and during that time we would always have like 45 minutes dedicated to dance, and 45 minutes dedicated to music, and then the rest was language and history. So I would say, since like the age of three, every year for hay tbrots we’d have instructional dance…

I mean they were very amateur, right? They expected nothing of us, honestly, you know it was like five kids to a class. It was really just about doing the hantes62 at the end of the year. Looking back at it now, it wasn’t as much as like a Hamazkayin, or, you know, different dance group or anything. But it was more focused on the songs you might be singing while dancing. So like, I mean, I remember one time, the one solo I had with another kid was like, we got up in the front from the line and did like the tapping feet stuff, and you know, like heel in front and heel in the back. It was like a little, you know, moment. That’s really it. And the other things were like the typical circle dances, and like, the usual. You’re in a circle, arms around each other, you’re skipping in unison, you’re shuffling in unison, you’re moving in unison. 

Though not part of a specific dance group, Van remembers dance being an important part of his Armenian education. Dance in this context is not only a typical school activity to keep kids engaged and active, but also a means to transmit Armenian culture to the next generation and inspire togetherness. In the ensembles, young children certainly perform as well, often receiving the loudest applause from the parents in the audience. Sardarabad and Siragan encourage young Armenians to dance as a way to start enacting and growing their connection to Armenianness. Alice started dancing when she was a child and has grown up alongside her dance group. As a young adult now seeing a new generation of kids enter the ensemble, Alice feels grateful to be able to maintain and grow her community:

Every time we come to dance practice, we dance all together, but having the little kids there who will also grow up to be like us and to dance like this… it’s always passing it on to the future generation because we’ll only be here for so long. So I feel like as long as the other kids see what we do, see how passionate we are to the dancing, like I think it’s a very good way of promoting our legacy. And I think by having the younger kids there, it’s only helping us grow and promote ourselves.

For Alice, bringing kids into the dance community ensures the continuation of an Armenian legacy. Children participate in these forms of dance and deepen their understanding of what being Armenian looks like in their own lives. Whether at summer camp, hay tbrots, or a formal dance ensemble, Armenian children gain the critical knowledge that Armenians dance together, as a community.

As Armenians learn and teach their dances, they sustain these ways of being Armenian. This kind of preservation is centered around keeping communities alive and focused on continuing living traditions. Taking the prescribed responsibility of cultural preservation, Armenians can promote a nuanced cultural continuity that honors a past, present, and future Armenia. Lusineh tries to keep this bigger picture in mind when she dances:

There’s this bigger purpose that’s a lot more significant than just a dance group in Chicago. You know, obviously, with Armenians’ history, it’s been a survival game since the beginning. And being in Chicago, you know, we’re not in Los Angeles, we’re not on the East Coast. We’re just right here in the Midwest, and I think that us showing up exhibits like, yes, our individual passions for Armenian dance and all that. But it also exhibits this greater commitment to furthering the Armenian cause, and really tapping into, like, trying to respect what our ancestors went through, doing things like this, and coming together.

Since Chicago has a relatively small Armenian community in the US, Lusineh emphasizes how Armenians in the area make the effort to form community and do their part as members of the diaspora. In this way, Lusineh dances to include herself in the global Armenian community. As a descendent of displaced Armenians, she participates in this community to honor her ancestors’ survival and continue being Armenian. Van similarly understands dance as a continuation of what his ancestors lived through and worked for:

I think we continue to dance because we’ve had the same, both joyous and dreadful, causes that cause us to dance. We’ve been able to keep all of our barahanteses and all of our dances and all of our yearly galas. We’ve been able to keep those going for so long. So you know, hell yeah, we’re gonna dance at all of them! But we’ve also encountered so many struggles along the way that also require our congregation, and thus our dancing. I would just say it’s been a continuation of our ups and downs. And then with each of those comes a time of coming together, and with that inevitably leads to dance.

Continuing Armenianness means being in community, and being in community involves dancing. Thus, Armenians dance to express the importance of being together. For many Armenians, this communal expression of Armenianness is a necessity. As Gaïdz explains,

We miss our homeland, we miss… There’s a reason why Armenians find each other, right? We’re all marked by this collective trauma, like that goes without saying. And so the power of being with another Armenian is something that doesn’t need to be, like, at least for most of us, it doesn’t need to be spoken. It doesn’t need to be reiterated. Because we, internally, we feel it, right? We go to a new city and we know nobody. Alright. Well, I guess I’m going to the Armenian Community Center, or I’m going to church, right? I need Armenians. I need my Armenian fix. I went nuts when I came here, and in a moment of deep isolation, like… ugh, it was scary. And so, on a personal level, I had this massive hole in my heart. I needed that fix. And so dancing became a medium through which I could sort of feel good about myself, and myself as an Armenian being with other Armenians. But like on all these different levels, right? We have this hole in our heart that has been sort of deepened by moments of collective trauma throughout generations, and dancing, practicing culture, which is to say engaging with others, in highly sort of social and cultural dimensions, allows us… it’s like medicine. It makes us feel better, at least for the time being. And then hopefully, we actually find a cure, right? (Emphasis added)

The generational trauma of being violently separated from the homeland permeates the various understandings of diasporan Armenian identity. Armenians need to be together to deal with this collective trauma, and those such as Gaïdz use dance to realize this connection. By dancing, Armenians gather into a community, actively participate in their own culture, and assert their narrative of survival.

Dance, then, is a social commitment to being Armenian together. By participating in Armenianness through dance, people create their own homeland in diaspora as a connection with other Armenians. Natalie describes how she experiences this creation of homeland:

There’s also like a homeland, a sense of home that you create in diaspora, too…. There’s the classes on teaching [Armenian dance] and maybe creating that little space and that sense of home, you know, for the students who come to the class. And then there’s the ensemble, you know, our work with Lernazang, and how we’re making it so that the dance and music that we practice as performance is also something that we do, just on, like it’s part of our daily lives in the sense that we gather for an event or a birthday, or a friend’s having a wedding, and we’re just, we know we’re gonna dance, and we know we’re gonna sing, and we know those things are gonna happen, because it’s not just a performance practice for us. It’s something that we’re doing because we enjoy it. We want it to be part of our lives. So we’re creating kind of that sense of “homeland” in dispersion.

People create homeland by intentionally making space to enjoy life with other Armenians. The homeland is a place where one belongs and feels community, so, as the original homeland is inaccessible, Armenians in diaspora must create this place by creating community. As Jirair puts it, “Anywhere there’s Armenians, it becomes a little Hayastan.” This sense of togetherness is also present in staged dance, though it may look different. At the end of Sardarabad’s performance, after the bows and closing remarks, one last song began playing, and the dancers on stage started to dance yarkhushta. The host invited the audience to join, and a few people climbed on stage to dance with the performers, laughing and clapping to the music. Similarly, Siragan’s performance ended with the musicians playing live music and the host encouraging the audience to join the dancers on stage as they danced without choreography. The band lead the dancers out of the auditorium with their music, and the audience joined their dancing in the hallway. The show may have ended, but now everyone danced together. The invitations for the audience to join the dancing shifts the performance from presentation to participation. Everyone there, members of dance ensemble and audience alike, was part of this moment to enact their Armenianness through dance, creating the space to be together and feel at home.

60Թամզարա (a popular circle dance from the Armenian Highlands with several variants).
61Հայ դպրոց (Eng: Armenian school)
62Հանդէս (Eng: recital; show; festival; concert)