Armenia’s big dance

Tens of thousands of Armenians literally embrace their country’s highest mountain.
By Gegham Vardanian under Mount Aragats

Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
June 2 2005

ARMENIA’S BIG DANCE

One step forward, one step back. Around a quarter of a million
of Armenians performed this simple manoeuvre last week in a mass
display of national unity. Participants in the Round Dance of Unity
symbolically embraced Mount Aragats – Armenia’s highest mountain –
on First Republic Day, May 28, by dancing hand in hand for 15 minutes.

Around 250,000 dancers formed a 168 kilometre ring around Mount
Aragats in an event that organisers hoped would show the world that
the Armenians are a united nation and give them an entry into the
Guinness Book of Records. Others speculated that the ceremony’s
organisers had a long-term political agenda.

On the day – which marks the declaration of independence in 1918
– hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the foot of Mount
Aragats, an extinct volcano which is 4090 metres high. They stood
hand in hand ready to start dancing. It was decided from the start
that the movement in the dance would be the simple Gyovndi dance –
one step forward, one step back. A week before, Armenian television
stations had started broadcasting clips that were meant to explain
to the population how to perform the movement correctly.

“The dance could have lasted five minutes, not fifteen. The main
idea here is that of unification. Huge sums of money are being spent
in Europe to support the idea of the European Union. However, it is
not being implemented, as there is no spirit in it,” Karen Gevorkyan,
chairman of the Union of National Art of Dancing, told IWPR.

Dancers were given orange caps, as the organisers wanted the dance
to look as an uninterrupted apricot-coloured ring when shot from
a helicopter.

In advance, it was said that this dance would need 168,000 thousand
participants, or one thousand people per kilometre. However, in the
event many more than that showed up and there were quite a number of
sections of the ring where people had to dance in several lines.

The ranks were especially thick where Armenian president Robert
Kocharian was dancing and the cameras focused their lenses on him.
He danced hand in hand with an old man in national Armenian clothes,
a young boy, and an elderly woman, all smiling broadly as they kept
time with the music.

The president was surrounded by officials and ministers, all of
whom danced extremely well, giving the impression that they had been
practicing hard in advance. However, the density of the line was uneven
and there were sections that were empty, spoiling the ambition for
an uninterrupted circle. That did not dampen enthusiasm and there
was universal celebration with music everywhere and separate groups
of people organising mini-dances.

“We are inspired by the fact that the Armenians can unite and organise
themselves,” said Shushan, a student at the Academy of Arts, told IWPR.
She and her friends stayed on the slopes of Aragats after the dance
was over and went on dancing.

However, the organisation of the event actually fell well short of
promises made beforehand. The organisers of the dance had said they
would slaughter animals for meat, supply drinking water and plastic
sacks for rubbish and build field toilets. In the event, there was
one toilet per 1,000 people and there were few plastic sacks. Piles
of rubbish were left at the foot of the mountain when people went
home after the ceremony.

“We thought that there would be some food, so we did not take much
food. We are now going back home earlier because none was provided
for us,” said Andranik who came to the dance with his family and
neighbours.

“We came here a day earlier, on the evening of May 27. They promised
that night’s lodging would be provided but we had to look for rooms
in a nearby village,” said a student from Yerevan State University.
He and his friends – around 20 young boys and girls – managed to
find two rooms with eight beds in them. “However, we are content.
We will remember this all our lives,” Khachik said with a smile.

The dance was planned by the Nig-Aparan Union, which brings together
people from the same Armenian district who settled in the capital
Yerevan.

Aghvan Hovsepyan, Armenia’s chief prosecutor, the head of the union
from Aparan, the area around Mount Aragats, spearheaded the event. He
took ten days’ leave ahead of the ceremony to make it happen but had
planned it over four months.

Hovsepyan is one of Armenia’s most prominent officials and received
support from politicians, businessmen and public servants. Each group
of a thousand people had its leader, who was responsible for bringing
people to the dance and supplying food, water, and transport.

The main committee, named Shurjpar and headed by Hovsepyan, resembled
a campaign headquarters, with expensive cars outside and emotional
discussions inside about who would transport how many people to the
mountain. Businessmen and government officials transported their own
employees. This level of organisation naturally aroused suspicions
that the dance had a hidden agenda.

“Shurjpar is being organised by the people who want to show that
they are able to organise events at a state level,” said lawyer Haik
Tovmasian. “They are ‘showing their muscles’.”

The Armenian capital virtually came to a halt on May 28 as most of
the public transport vehicles were taking dancers to Aragats and
taxis were hard to come by.

Student Arsen Kharatian, who did not take part in the Aragats dance,
was not impressed saying, “It’s unacceptable that state funds are
used to implement an idea like this. The main aim is to ensure a
large number of participants. It would perhaps be best to describe
this event as a compulsory celebration.”

Despite such criticisms, chief prosecutor Aghvan Hovsepyan said
immediately after the dance that everything had been wonderful, “Nature
helped me, God helped me, everything was excellent and beautiful.

“I am so full of emotion that I do not even know what to think about.
I invite you to Shurjpar next year.”

Everyday reality returned all too quickly. On his way back from Aparan,
a car driver took a look at the heaps of rubbish on the mountainside
and remarked bitterly, “The Armenians have been here.”

One peasant from Aparan, a short old man with a wrinkled and sunburned
face, shouted out “What are you doing?” as expensive cars moved across
a ploughed field to beat the traffic jams. He had a wooden stick in his
hand and beat the sides of the vehicles with it as they bumped past.

Gegham Vardanian is a journalist with Internews in Yerevan.

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