A Dance into the Sublime

Tatoul Altounian Song & Dance Ensemble

A traditional Armenian dance called “Sareri Hovin Mernem” (I die for the wind of the mountains). It was performed in June of 2006 at the Babajanian Hall formerly called the small theatre of the Philharmonia – courtesy of Youtube.

A Dance into the Sublime

By Hwaa Irfan

When we think of dance, many things will come to mind, even myself, for I was raised with the arts as a part of heritage, and as a form of self expression. However, here what I am referring to is the original purpose of dance. Before the Divine made Himself manifest through the Divine Religions, as humans we sought to express ourselves through His Creation i.e. nature. Dance was one such means of expression, an imitation of the divine play of nature, before it took on expressions of nature, and then finally of man.

Out of a thirst for an artistic experience and/or a yearning for true harmony in this world today, an inner compulsion led me to attend the performance of the Middle East Ensemble of the University of California at the Opera House. A fleeting thought came to me as they began the dance on how the origins of ballet have never really been explained, as I observed the way the dancers used their hands and the flow of their movements. Also, I had impressions of the movements of the Whirling Dervishes who express the cycles of existence or the spin of a planet on its own axis around the sun. But before me, there were 6 young women in simple flowing sky-blue dresses, graced by long flowing white semi-transparent veils, expressing something “other” knowingly and/or unknowingly. Their level of comfort with each other was reminiscent of what I miss, i.e. the bonding between women that arises out of nature before we began to look at ourselves through our bodies only. After that I was “available”, my mind was open, and all of me was receptive to what the dance had to offer unlike the person who accompanied me. The performance was unlike the video clip above, as the music was more folk-based, with emphasis on strings, and drum, with the drum inviting one to go within the dance if one desired. The women danced as one body in modest motions, with emphasis on the arms, hands and fingers. The movements linked together in time and space moved beyond space and time, creating a portal to an almost subliminal experience. If the dance had lasted longer, I might have discovered what message the dance had to convey, and what was was calling me from within. The relationship between the dance and the music was a symbiotic one, but it was the movements of the dancers that created lasting impressions in my mind.

The dancers performed beautifully traditional dances from Iran, Syria, Turkey, U.A.E, and Egypt. The dance of the Sa’idis, which I am more than familiar with, was very different from the other performances, being very much focused on the hips and the stomach, and in the context of the above, lacked the same appeal even though in heritage the whole body is used in dance. There was costume changes for each dance, and the costumes were rich in color and detail representing the countries from which each dance came from, and demonstrated the variety of practical, but luxurious (in beading, embroidery and cloth) clothing available across the Muslim world. The musical ensemble was far from deficient and displayed a standard of professionalism, not least of all a grey-haired woman from Egypt originally, probably in her 60s who played the master drum for all pieces.

An Ancient Source

The special “something” about Armenia dance is not felt by me alone. This is probably what has contributed to its continued appeal. It transpires that the Armenian traditional dance dates back from the 5th – 3rd millennia B.C. when it was a much larger state than now. Examples of this art form are depicted in the rock paintings on the plateau of Mount Ararat, which used to be a part of Armenia. The similarity I felt between the Iranian and Armenian dance indicates a common origin as ancient Armenia once stretched out into Asia Minor, the mountains of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The women’s dance comes from various parts of eastern Armenia (ancient). The solo dance styles, which I have yet to experience, are known as “naz bar” or “grace dance.” I mention it here because as a novice it reflects the general grace of the performance I “experienced.” Laura Shannon, a non-Armenian dancer describes the importance of the feet:

    “… how the feet feel the ground they dance upon, is very important.”

In the region of the Lake Sevan, a cornet and drum skins have been discovered dating from the first millennium. The music is essentially simple but rich in melody and rhythm being based on the Tetra-chord system. The Tetra-chord system is rich in melodic formulas, and can be found in most medieval religious music throughout Christendom. Armenia was the first Christian kingdom in the West, and the Church incorporated Armenian traditional music into Christian religious music in order that they would forget their past. The Tetra-chord has a musical scale of four notes, with the 4th note holding the magnetic attraction. The use of the notes emphasizes melody, which are presented in a slow deliberate manner as if in the throes of revealing a secret to the listener. However, for me, it was the movements seemed to be revealing something I did not know before.

Armenian dance and music spans the sacred domain to reflect village life, urban life, and the history and trials of a people. Instrumentation in traditional Armenian music and dance consists of mainly wind instruments made from apricot wood, the Kanun, a Middle Eastern influence possessing a 24-stringed instrument using animal skin for a membrane, the 6-stringed o’ud (predecessor of the lute) with a short neck, and more round than the Middle Wastern o’ud is made from apricot, maple, walnut or mahogany – a variety of o’uds are used. The Santur, also a stringed instrument like the zither, but is made of walnut, rosewood or betel palm. The Kamancha, a Persian stringed instrument like a fiddle, which is held upright on the knee. The gos/dhol a double-skinned drum made of walnut, goat or sheep/calf skin, played both with hands and sticks (two sticks with one thicker than the other). One skin is thick, providing the bass rhythm, while the other skin is thinner thus providing a higher pitch. And then there is the Dap, a large single headed frame drum (as in the western tambourine) possessing metallic rings, rattles or silver coins.

The evening was dotted with singing of traditional Arab music. The crowd was enthusiastic, and was far from hesitant in expressing their appreciation. The leader of the Ensemble was a people’s man who engaged the Ensemble and the audience in a manner that could be enjoyed by all, but for me lingers on the secret behind the Armenian dance!


Michaelian, A and Hermelinde, S. Face Music Traditional Instruments of Armenia. http://www.face-music.ch/instrum/armenia_instrum_en.html

Shannon, L. Armenian Dance. http://www.hyeetch.nareg.com.au/culture/music_p4.html

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4 thoughts on “A Dance into the Sublime

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