With around three thousand years of history, Armenia is steeped in culture and tradition, and Armenian folk dance (պար; bar) is a prime example of the country’s diversity. Each region has its own style and each of them has a special meaning, associated with rituals, traditions and faith. They are also a way to express emotions. Traditionally, many dances are performed in traditional Armenian dress (the տարազ or taraz) and involve props such as masks or knives.
Music is, of course, an important part of a dance. Armenian folk dance music is performed on folk instruments: the դուդուկ or ծիրանափող (duduk or tsiranapogh, a wind instrument made out of apricot wood, similar to a flute); the զուռնա (zurna, another wind instrument made out of wood, but closer to a clarinet); and the Դհոլ (dhol, a type of drum common not just in eastern Europe but also across Asia).
Originally gender mattered when dancing; women and men performed different dances. Nowadays, however, everyone can participate regardless of their gender. The dances serve as a vibrant expression of people’s entire lives, encapsulating their history, values and prayers, as well as moments of joy and sorrow. They are passed down through generations and remain an integral part of social gatherings like weddings and festivals. Even within the Armenian diaspora, there is a concerted effort to preserve and perpetuate these dance traditions, ensuring their continuation beyond the country’s borders.
Let’s have a closer look at the most famous Armenian folk dances:
The Քոչարի or kochari is a lively, energetic dance that is believed to be one of the oldest traditional dances of Armenia.There are different versions depending on where you live, but it was inspired by the movement of rams fighting against each other. Initially the kochari symbolized a military victory and was performed by men, but nowadays it is performed during different celebrations by people of any age, gender and social status. The dancers hold each other’s hands in a line, shoulder to shoulder, and dance in a circle. The first person in the line holds a handkerchief and spins it. (The discerning reader may notice similarities to the Levantine دبكة, debka.) Kochari dancers often wear traditional costumes, which can vary depending on the region of Armenia they come from. In 2017, the kochari was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List as a dance that “provides a sense of shared identity and solidarity, contributes to the continuity of historical, cultural and ethnic memory, and fosters mutual respect among community members of all ages.”
Want to give it a try? Check out this kochari tutorial!
The շալախո or shalakho is a dynamic, acrobatic dance known throughout the Caucasus region. There are different versions depending on the region, and the dancers also differ: in some areas it is only danced by women, only by men, or by women and men together. The most common variation is with two or more men “competing” to attract a woman’s attention. The male dancers use swords or sticks as props and perform fast-paced, energetic movements that involve jumping, kicking and spinning, while the women move in a more soft and delicate manner, with shorter steps. The shalakho is typically accompanied by the zurna.
The Թամզարա or tamzara is a traditional dance that originated in the Western region of Armenia, which is now part of Turkey. It is typically performed at weddings by men and women, who hold hands and move in a circular motion while crossing steps and swinging their arms. The music for the tamzara is usually provided by a dhol, and the dance is often accompanied by singing.
The Յարխուշտա or yarkhushta is a war dance typically performed by men. The name probably comes from the union of the Farsi Persian words یار (yar), meaning “companion” or “lover,” and khusht, a small dagger. It involves quick, fast-paced movements, including high jumps and kicks performed to the sound of a dhol and zurna, and originally it was likely accompanied by war cries.The key element of the dance is a forward movement, in which participants rapidly approach one another and vigorously clap the palms of the dancers in the opposite row.
Like the tamzara, the yarkhusta originates in Sasun, in Western Armenia, now Turkey. However, many inhabitants of that area were displaced due to persecution and settled in the Talin region, in today’s Armenia, bringing their culture with them. In the 1930s, a famous ethnographer named Srbuhi Lisitsian, who taught in Yerevan, visited the villages of Talin to study their dances. He was the one who made the yarkhusta known to the whole country of Armenia. Most researchers say that the dance has medieval origins, while others argue that it dates back to Armenia’s pre-Christian period, but scholars agree that the dance has gone through almost no changes during the centuries.
We couldn’t decide between these two examples — why not comment and tell us which you prefer?
Finally, the բերդ, berd, or բերդապար, berdapar, whose name means “fortress,” is another famous Armenian military dance originally performed by men. Its name comes from a move performed during the dance, in which the dancers stand on top of each other’s shoulders to create a “fortress.” Originally from the old Armenian city Vaspurakan, near the Van Lake in Western Armenia, people say that before becoming a dance it was a game named Գմբեթախաղ or gmbetakhagh, which means “dome game.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.
ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.