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Detroit Nurse Preserves Heritage Through Dance

Junior Arax Dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)

On weekdays, Nayiri Karapetian walks the halls of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, in a nurse’s scrubs. On Saturdays, she stands in a dance studio in black tights and jazz shoes, teaching 130 performers of various ages intricate steps she choreographed to the beats of Armenian folk songs.

KARAPETIAN’S JOURNEY

A native of Chicago, Karapetian’s journey as an Armenian dancer and instructor began at age 11 as an obligation to her culture rather than a passion for the art.

Arax Dance Ensemble (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)
Arax Dance Ensemble (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)

“Kicking and screaming, I went to dance practice, and for months, I just did not like it at all; I just didn’t feel like it was my thing,” Karapetian says.

Then, she stepped onto the stage and performed in front of an audience.

For the next 18 years, under the tutelage of her dance group’s instructor, Karapetian honed her skills, becoming a senior dancer and teacher. When she moved to Michigan in 2004 as a young bride, she longed to regain that sense of community.

“When I left Chicago, it was hard because I was leaving a job I loved, a dance group and a community that I was very much a part of,” Karapetian says.

Despite being home to a large Armenian community, Michigan didn’t have a dance group then.  Karapetian approached Hermine Manoogian, the former Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society chairperson, and learned they had tried in vain to find a dance instructor.

Manoogian then offered Karapetian the opportunity to start a troop in Michigan. However, she resisted the idea.

When I left Chicago, it was hard because I was leaving a job I loved, a dance group and a community that I was very much a part of.

“I am a nurse; I work in the ICU; I don’t think I’m qualified to teach a dance class,” she says.

Nevertheless, as the grandchild of four Armenian genocide survivors, Karapetian couldn’t extinguish the “spark in her heart” nor ignore her obligation to “teach the future generation.” She accepted the challenge, and the Detroit Hamazkayin Arax Dance Ensemble was born.

MEANING OF ‘ARAX’

“Arax” refers to the river between the Armenian and Turkish borders.

 “It has been a strong symbol of pride to Armenians and has many historical references,” Karapetian says. “It’s a river that we identify as our own that will always flow and thrive.”

She continues: “I like to think of our Armenian diaspora in the same way.”

Hamazkayin dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)
Hamazkayin dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)

As soon as word spread about the new Armenian dance teacher in town, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Alex & Marie Manoogian school invited Karapetian to teach dance classes. Soon after, she began offering dance classes to the rest of the community.

The debut cohort of 23 students in 2006 soon grew to include 70 boys and girls. Today, more than 130 students gather every Saturday at 9:30 a.m. to practice dance. The troupe is divided by grade level: Hrashk (Grades 2, 3 and 4); Houys (Grades 5, 6 and 7); and Arax Junior (Grades 8, 9 and 10).

Kyane Crane, 33, was among the first students to join the Arax Dance group at age 14.

Karapetian “was really excited to start it,” Crane says. “There were 20 people, and it kept growing.”

“Since the beginning, she knew the choreography and taught us really well,” Crane adds. “If she weren’t there, the dance group wouldn’t have happened.”

JUGGLING RESPONSIBILITIES

Today, driven by her love for her culture and Armenian dance, Karapetian, 48, juggles her responsibilities as a nurse on the ICU Rapid Response Team, working three 12-hour shifts per week, with those as a clinical instructor, a mother to three children and a dance instructor. In the off-season, she also leads missions to Armenia to work with medical personnel and deliver much-needed medical supplies.

Junior Arax Dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)
Junior Arax Dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)

Her energy is infectious, and Karapetian admits not needing much sleep.

“I just never stopped; I just kept going and growing,” she says.

Even though she is not classically trained as a dancer, Karapetian has a vision for what she wants to accomplish on stage. She can feel and hear the rhythms, which allows her to choreograph complex moves to Armenian songs, some of which date back 5,000 years. For instance, a three-minute song can take up to seven hours or sometimes weeks to tweak and get just right. She works alongside her senior dancers and encourages them to get involved in the choreography.

“I hear music, and I see movement. I have a vision, and a lot of it becomes an expression of my passion for my culture and my love for my people,” Karapetian says.

One of her co-instructors is Lucine Cholakian, 25, who started Armenian dance as a 5-year-old student at AGBU and has been a part of the troupe ever since — except for a four-year hiatus when she went to college.

Karapetian “is incredibly passionate about dance and about Armenian culture,” says Cholakian. “She weaves in education and stories, so we learn the importance of why we’re dancing.”

COMMEMORATING THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE

Her dance is Karapetian’s way of fighting back against oppression in Armenia and preserving the culture lost during the Armenian Genocide.

The country, with Yerevan as its capital, is in West Asia and bordered by Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east. During World War I, 1.5 million Armenians who inhabited some of the villages in Turkey were removed from their ancestral homelands and exterminated.

I hear music, and I see movement. I have a vision, and a lot of it becomes an expression of my passion for my culture and my love for my people.

“It’s like I am sending a bullet back saying we’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” says Karapetian, “A lot of our dances got destroyed as villages got wiped out.”

Junior Arax Dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)
Junior Arax Dancers (Photo courtesy Della Cassia)

Each year, Karapetian, along with her co-teacher Dikran Callan and her senior instructors, present their work to the community during a performance in April to commemorate the Armenian Genocide, in July at an Armenian festival and at a recital in November. The latter attracts up to 500 attendees and culminates nine months of practice. It features more than two dozen solo and group dances honoring different regions within Armenia and its rich heritage to create exquisite tableaux that combine artistry and storytelling.

INSPIRATION TO DANCE

Karapetian’s determination to carry on the torch of her ancestors inspires her dancers to do the same. To them, dance is more than Saturday practices or performances on stage; it’s a calling. They break into dance at random events — be it small social gatherings or out-of-town events and retreats.

“It’s about keeping that culture alive and learning how they did it in Armenia and bringing it to the state,” says Taleene Snitgen, 20, who joined the Arax Dance Ensemble in second grade and has been part of it ever since.

It’s like I am sending a bullet back saying we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. A lot of our dances got destroyed as villages got wiped out.

Nayiri Karapetian with Junior Arax dancers (Photo courtesy Nayiri Karapetian)
Nayiri Karapetian with Junior Arax dancers (Photo courtesy Nayiri Karapetian)

Although Karapetian has accomplished a lot in the last two decades, she hopes to perform someday with other Armenian dance groups from around the country, perhaps even on stage in Armenia.

For now, she is busy welcoming new and returning students to the 19th season of the Arax Dance Ensemble. She’s also getting ready to travel back to Armenia to train nurses and doctors on life-saving techniques and deliver more medical supplies she bought through generous donations from the community.

“God gives us gifts, and we should share our gifts,” Karapetian says. “I’m not saying I am perfect or I’m the best. But I do have a gift and would like to share it. I’d also like to share my passion and instill that passion in the kids.”

For more information about the Hamazkayin Arax Dance Ensemble, visit hamazkayindetroit.com.

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