Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Big Dance

Tens of thousands of Armenians literally embrace their country’s highest mountain.
By IWPR

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.