By Hasmik Hovhannisian
It all started from simple curiosity and eventually became a way of life. A Dutch folk dance teacher, Tineke Van Geel, took her first classes in Armenian dance from two Armenian teachers in the Netherlands around 30 years ago, and now she herself teaches Armenian dances all around the world and even organizes dance tours to Armenia.
How it began
I started as a folk dance teacher; I was teaching Yugoslavian, Russian, Israeli and other dances. I became interested in Armenian dances at the end of 1970's. That's because I met a dance teacher who had come from France and another teacher who had come from the USA to the Netherlands. I was interested in Armenian but not more than in other dances. Then I got in touch with Abovian, the Armenian Club in The Hague. I started taking history classes and language classes and taught them the dances I knew. Little by little I started thinking about going to the country myself and learning the dances from the Armenians living in Armenia.
The only way I could get into Armenia to study dance was asking for a scholarship from our government, because I had to visit the Soviet Union through official channels. I asked for a scholarship from our Ministry of Culture and in 1985 came in Armenia. Later the rules changed so I could come here by invitation of my friends. I came back in a half-year, then every year.
I tried to take as many classes as possible and with the help of AOKS, the committee for relations with foreign countries, I managed to have a full program. Of course, it was strange to have a foreigner wanting to participate in the training, but everybody was always very responsive. The only disadvantage was that I was frequently the tallest one present. Therefore I was put in the leading position in the line, not having a clue where to go or what to do! A very uncomfortable start! Another approach was to be put between two dancers who were trying to explain the details of their bounces and steps holding me firmly between them. A very difficult position to look carefully at each movement. I would have preferred to be behind the line and not be noticed learning the steps.
At the Sayat Nova Academy I observed and participated in classes of all ages, because it was interesting for me to see how the curriculum was put together. One girl once asked me how old I was (at that point I was 32) and she laughed and answered me: how funny, just like my mother!
Soviet Armenia through European Eyes
In 1988 I again got a scholarship. This time for a period of four-and-a-half months issued by the Dutch Ministry of Education. That was perhaps the worst time for Armenia.
During the curfew period in 1988 a lot of articles were distributed by coupons. You received a coupons for butter, coffee and sugar. The first time
that I 'scored' my coffee, I found out that I had to burn the beans myself. An action which was entirely new to me and of course there was an awful smell burning them in the kitchen of the student hostel in Norki Massiv.
One time my husband called me and asked me how everything was and I cried out full of excitement:'" I have found a chicken." The hot water problem I solved by buying a big spiral which could be electrically heated and putting it in a bucket of water.
At the time that I visited Yerevan, it was very uncommon to see any foreigners. Men thought I was from Lithuania or Estonia searching for a nice dark Armenian husband and tried to start a conversation on the street or in the taxi. You were frequently stared at and of course it was uncommon for a woman alone to go to a restaurant. I had lots of male friends and it also was bizarre at that time for Armenians for a single woman to have male friends. It was accepted for a foreigner.
When they knew I was married, one shock would change into another: many people couldn't understand how my husband had let me go and approved of all this. I started to visit Armenia at the age of 29, but at one point it was very strange for Armenians to see a married woman of 32 not having a child, being married for 12 years!
At some point I was fed up with the questions and told people that I had two children and that my parents took care of them. A normal situation in Armenia, but not in Holland. Grandparents do not take care of grandchildren, but will help by babysitting from time to time.
Our daughter was born in 1989, so after a lot of traveling to Armenia, I did have a child!
The biggest impact in my life was the earthquake in Armenia. I will never forget the suffering I saw. I traveled to the earthquake areas with members of the Dutch Red Cross, who were delivering goods and wanted to communicate with survivors about their needs. It was a shocking experience. I also helped at the hospital in Yerevan. In the same period, refugees from Karabakh were treated there, so I saw a lot of misery and grief. Therefore I feel close to Armenia.
The best friends in my life are made in Armenia. I am still in touch with some of them. I helped friends during the 1990's to live in Holland for three months because of the desperate situation on energy in Armenia. The following year this family stayed with us for one-and-a-half months. I consider this couple and their children as my Armenian brother and sister and they are very close and important to me.
I studied at Yerevan State Pedagogical Institute and Sayat Nova music school. One time the dean of the institute told me that the Minister of Culture wanted to see me. During our meeting he asked whether my room was OK and how everything was. An odd meeting if you compare the situation with the Netherlands. This would never have happened at home.
The promotion of Armenian culture
In 1989 I published a book on Armenia. It contains information on different subjects: history, religion, the Diaspora, geography, the political system, language... Armenian folk instruments, costume history, costumes of different regions, origin of Armenian dance, men's dances, women's dances, mixed dances, dance styles ... But the core of the book is of course the focus on dance and costumes.
I used 23 different books written in Dutch, English and German. It was not the internet era yet! I didn't advertise the book I widespread it in circles. My main purpose was to inform dance students. It has never been translated in another language. But it has been used in the folk dance teacher education at the dance academy. When I published the book Armenian dances were practically unknown and the same applies to Armenia. I think the book has contributed to an expansion of knowledge about the country as well as the dance culture.
In Armenia I worked with both professional and amateur ensembles. Groups do wonderful dances but this music has never been recorded. For me it was impossible to teach them without having recordings. So I established my own CD label and I brought Armenian musicians to the Netherlands. We recorded Armenian music, now I have produced 7 CDs, all done by professional Armenian musicians. Thus I also made kind of archive of Armenian folk music which had never been recorded before.
Recently I visited a music shop in Yerevan and asked for good Armenian folk music. The funniest thing happened: they showed me a CD, I opened it, it was Van Geel records. I said you know it is me - I am Van Geel! Internationally this would be a very big problem because you are making illegal copies, but in Armenia I was greeted with enthusiasm: `Oh you are Van Geel, this is so nice to meet you, very good music, my best CD!!!
I am evidently exporting merchandise back to Armenia.
Now I teach Armenian dances throughout the world. Besides the dances I also speak about Armenian history, culture, people, and my own experience here. There are several aspects of Armenian dance and music that appeal to me most. There is a big contrast between very lyrical dances for women and very powerful men's dances. Even as a woman, both styles are very challenging. On the other side there is the beautiful music and large variety of mixed dances from many regions.
You have to teach Armenian dances to Europeans slowly, because they think they can never master the style and then they don't want to touch it again. Armenian dances are difficult in terms of involving all body in the movements. It is hard for Europeans; it is not our culture to work with the hands, so I build the repertoire gradually. When I teach in Japan, Taiwan or Hong Kong, there is no problem; they have similar movements in their culture.
I teach Armenian dances as if I am preparing people a sandwich. First bread, they know what it is, they take it, then butter, again well-known, then ham, etc. Many people say that my classes are successful just because I split the complicated movements into the simple elements and present them step by step.
At some point I had an idea to organize a dance tour to Armenia. I decided to organize a tour for the people who came to dance classes. An old friend of mine, Satik Avetissian, helps me with the organization in Armenia. She is married to a Dutch man and lives in Yerevan. Part of the tour is dance classes, another part is to see the country. I thought they had to learn from an Armenian teacher, not from me. So one of my friends, my former teacher Paylak Sarkisyan, was a teacher to them.
I think the tours are very important for Armenia as well. Because lots of people have no idea what Armenia is. And by bringing them here, I also want to draw their attention to the fact that it is a very interesting country with a very ancient culture. And dances are actually my medium to bring people over.
I brought my first group last year. The idea was successful, this time I again filled up the tour. Next year I am going to organize two tours, one especially for Asian people who show a big interest in Armenian dances.
In this year's group there were forty-one women and six men. The majority are amateur dancers; very few of them are dance teachers. In this group there were some people who had never danced Armenian dance before and had no idea of what Armenia is.
There were also people from the previous tour. Armenian dances are very popular nowadays. We danced here, in Yerevan, went to Yeghegnadzor and saw and danced their dances, compared lives in Yerevan and countryside.
We learnt five new dances both for women and men. In the restaurant Cilicia our group began dancing Armenia dances. I cannot describe the astonishment of the Armenians present when they saw forty-seven foreigners dancing their dances! Later they joined us.
I have been coming to Armenia for years. And every time I feel I have much to see and learn here yet. I think my study of Armenian dance will never stop.'
Source: Hetq Online – 26 June 2006
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