Dancing the role of Queen Nuard from Ara Geghetsik (Ara the Beautiful). Photo: Raymond Van Tassel

Dancing out of the ashes

An Armenian American’s story about defining her identity through dance

By Lena Dakessian Halteh

I stood waiting in the wings upstage, surrounded by darkness and a sense of calm. I gently raised my left arm, tilted my head to the side, and took my starting position. “Remember, you’re a dove, ” I thought to myself as I waited for the music cue. My movements and expression had to be exceptionally delicate. Unlike my other roles — a tortured soul, a newlywed bride or the physical embodiment of night — this required that I exude an ethereal purity.

I closed my eyes and relished the moment.

Gilded with white feathers and silver sequins, my costume began to catch the light as the crew illuminated the backdrop in blue. And as the soulful melody of Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan’s “Djermag Aghavni” (“White Dove”) filled the room, I stepped out onto the stage.

My mother was the second of five children, born by the glistening cobalt sea near Haifa and raised in a lower middle class neighborhood in Beirut called Achrafieh. My father, the eldest son of a respected Basturmaji — a maker of basturma and soujoukh meats — was raised in the Salibiyeh quarter of Aleppo, known for its many churches.

They belonged to a second generation of diasporan Armenians who never set foot on their homeland.

Far outside the borders of Armenia, my parents developed a sense of belonging to a place they’d never seen and a responsibility to pass on to their children a whole understanding of what it means to be Armenian.

Left: Before the genocide, my paternal great grandparents were living in Kayseri in Central Anatolia. Right: After the genocide, my paternal great grandparents had moved to Syria.

I was four when my parents enrolled me in a full-time Armenian school. For eight years, I, too, was taught to fiercely love a “homeland” I had never visited. Daily lessons in Armenian language, history and Christian Orthodox religion were part of our everyday curriculum. I left the school having learned to read and write in our ancient Aypoupen script, to sing the ancient hymns of our church, recite Armenian poetry and recount the tragic fate our ancestors met at the start of the 20th century. Within the walls of our school, I had a secure sense of self, surrounded by a community that shared a similar sentiment and purpose.

But when it came time to leave the nest for high school and integrate with the rest of the world, I searched for a way to belong again.

I was 13 when I met a professional ballerina who had started an Armenian dance company. She named the group ARAX, for the river that once belonged to Armenia but now defines the nation’s border with Turkey. Over the next 14 years, Noemi Araxi would physically mold my posture and pigeon-toed feet and expose me to a wealth of Armenian artists, singers, musicians and composers. She taught me how the evolution of dance in Yerevan had introduced a fascinating interplay between traditional and contemporary movement.

Through dance I discovered a completely new way of storytelling using allegorical movements to tell the most poignant chapters of our history, from the Palace of King Ara the Beautiful to the ruins of Adana. Leveraging dance as a storytelling medium, using both traditional and modern dance forms and melodies, is what binds me to a homeland that, due to my status as a diasporan, had made me feel foreign and at home all at once.

There were around 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire on the eve of World War I before soldiers under the Young Turk Triumvirate massacred 1.5 million of them and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homeland. And though the intent of genocide is to obliterate a race so that the few who survive lose all ties to their cultural identity, I think most Armenians would agree that these crimes had the reverse effect.

Ask any Armenian to name the nation’s first capital. They’d say Ani, the city of 1,000 churches, now neglected and in ruins in eastern Turkey.

Ask them who the father of Armenian music was. They’d answer Komitas Vardapet, a man who left a brilliant legacy despite his mental anguish at witnessing the massacres.

Ask them where their parents or grandparents were living in 1915, and then ask them to what corner of the world they fled to create their “new Armenia.”

They’ll each have a story.

Lena Dakessian Halteh is an intern at AJ+ and student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Another personal story of the Meds Yeghern is being told on stage…in Istanbul: