ARARAT magazine
Vol.XLI, Summer 2000 No. 163

Anahid Sofian: Dancer
by Pamela Manché Pearce
Anahid Sofian is the first dancer on stage. She waves a red handkerchief with one hand. With the other she holds the hand of a dancer in her troupe, leading a line of beautiful women in a traditional Anatolian dance. One by one they follow her until they dance as one. A glorious, moving ribbon of color on the Town Hall stage. A perfect metaphor for Anahid Sofian. The many women she is, all led by one--Anahid the dancer. Each woman could represent an aspect of Anahid's full life: choreographer, artistic director, costumer, teacher, dance school proprietress---and at her daily job, secretary. Anahid weaves this ribbon of dancers around the stage--intricately, inventively, perfectly----just as she weaves dance through the many facets of her life.
Ararat Magazine

On April 7th an audience of over 1,200 filled New York's Town Hall for the second year in a row to see Anahid Sofian and her dance company, part of the World Dance Festival 2000. The music and song of her Sharqi Orchestra --six highly acclaimed New York musicians-- take us on fantasy trip to the Middle East, with stops in Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Persia, and Armenia, to see dances ranging from traditional folk to cabaret-style Danse Orientale. Anahid, the twelve members of her troupe, and guest artist Elena, --all magnificently costumed-- turn the stage into an exotic and thrilling panorama.

Dance has always been the central passion of Anahid's life. And now, after 30 years as a Middle Eastern dancer, she is a legend. As an artist she has faced the challenges of her art, which she has met by expanding traditional dance forms and taking them to new heights. She has also met the challenges of financial survival, through hard work and versatility. In all, she is a powerhouse of talent, determination and endurance.
    Her company's choreography has been evolving for twenty years, and it reaches its peak at the Town Hall performance. Years of hard work and commitment have paid off for Anahid, who has maintained a full-time job while teaching, running her school, and creating new choreography and costumes. Commenting on this, her second Town Hall triumph, a tremendous undertaking requiring an all-new program, Anahid said, "It was an enormous push, a great effort. But we broke through to another level of artistry. I'm proud of our work and eager to begin another new project, one I've had in mind for ten years."

The project in mind was to be a fund-raiser for victims of the Armenian earthquake in 1988; but it was halted by the death of Anahid's collaborator, Armenian-Greek composer Mark Kyrkostas. It is not a dance in the usual sense, but more a ritual, a ceremony, an experience that expresses the grief and tragedy in the memory of the Armenian people. Anahid Sofian envisions this dance to be done in a public space and it can be adapted to any site, a church, a park, even Grand Central Station. Anahid Sofian recently learned of The Karabagh Art and Music festival slated for 2001 and hopes to perform the piece there, in the ruins of an old monastery, or at the Sardarabad Memorial in Yerevan. The scope of the project opens up new artistic areas of expression, which would require research and study and she is currently exploring fund-raising that would be necessary to complete this project.

Anahid Sofian the dancer was called "spectacular" by The New York Times, and The Village Voice found her choreography to be "astonishing flights of rhythmic imagination." She bookended her Friday night triumph at Town Hall by also performing on the Tuesday before and on the Sunday afterward in the prestigious "Horse's Mouth" project. This event is a major collaboration of New York dancers, conceived by Tina Croll and James Cunningham, and presented by the St. Mark's Church Dancespace Project. Anahid was the lone representative of Middle Eastern dance at this event, once limited to modem and ballet, now expanded to include world dance.

Anahid's parents both survived the Armenian Genocide. Her father, the noted poet and writer Vahram Sofian (1899-1969), felt the full impact of the atrocities. He was just twelve when he and his mother were sent on a forced march to the Mesopotamian Desert. She died en route and he buried her in a mass grave. Berdjouhi Minassian, Anahid's mother, was too young to remember the atrocities; but she later shared her husband's deep commitment to their Armenian roots and identity. Anahid's mother was a gifted singer, writer and artist, though the difficulties of immigrant life did not allow her to develop her talents. The Sofian home, in Washington Heights, then relocated to California was devoted to Armenian heritage and to culture. Anahid and her brother spoke Armenian as their first language; the young boy's English was so poor that he flunked first grade. The children were taught piano and violin.

Dancing was Anahid's first love. She danced at home to classical and oriental music listened to by her parents. Her strict father believed that dancing was not a respectable activity for a girl; however, Anahid's clever and supportive mother prevailed by presenting ballet lessons as a health booster for the high strung and sickly child. The adolescent Anahid soon expanded her lessons to include acrobatics and tap. Her interest in teaching and choreography emerged quickly: just three months after starting classes, she choreographed a piece for her girlfriends. Their first recital was in the backyard, in crepe-paper costumes fashioned by their mothers.

Dance was the center of Anahid's life until she discovered boys; this new interest turned her into a teen bride. Dance was put on hold. In her twenties, during her second marriage, Anahid returned to dance: ballet, as before, and serious study of modern dance, with Bella Lewitsky. She soon joined a professional modern dance company but a knee injury forced her off stage for three years.
    As she recovered, Anahid changed her focus. She moved from California back to New York City and took up folk dancing as therapy for her knees. Though unable to return to classical dance, she continued dancing whenever she could manage it physically. She took moden dance classes at the Erick Hawkins School, and studied Afro-Cuban and jazz as well. By chance, a cousin took her to Caf√© Istanbul on Eighth Avenue. The year was 1964, the hey-day of the Eighth Avenue Middle Eastern clubs. When Anahid saw the dancer Athena perform "I had a very powerful response. I fell in love," she said as a panelist at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts discussion "Middle Eastern Dance in New York City in the 1960s" on June 13, 1997. A ballet snob, she saw in oriental dance "beautiful, natural, powerful dancing... individuality and creativity lacking in ballet.

"Middle Eastern dancers have such an enjoyment of their body and of being female. They project femininity that is not a come-on kind of thing," Anahid said when interviewed by Rachel Vigier for her book, Gestures of Genius: Women, Dance and the Body (The Mercury Press, 1994). "It's part of what we used to call an 'Oriental head.' It's also the way they interpret the music. American dancers work very hard at technique. They take it very seriously as an art form, but often they leave out this very personal, subjective aspect of it."
    At the "Middle Eastern Dance in New York City" panel discussion Anahid further commented on this aspect of oriental dancing: "The 'Oriental head' is dancing to feeling and musical phrasing, not just technique and choreography. It is about understanding the music. At the core of Middle Easterm dancing is improvisation, but structured improvisation. The dancer must know the music, must know what she is doing, and then allow the expression. The current vogue is for a more compartmentalized style with emphasis on choreography. But this is not what an 'Oriental head' is about."
    Anahid taught herself Middle Eastern dance by once again dancing at home, as she did as a child. Since there were no oriental dance schools in the '60s, aspiring dancers learned by becoming proteges of professional dancers. Eager to learn, Anahid spent her days at her full-time job at The Saturday Review Magazine and her nights in clubs, watching and learning as the dancers performed and accompanied each other, singing and drumming. Anahid practiced constantly. She concentrated on being able to isolate her torso, which ballet requires to be kept rigid. She practiced so hard that she developed tendonitis of the hips. A beautiful American dancer, Antoinette, gave Anahid a few private lessons and encouraged her to work as a dancer. Anahid did that. But she never gave up her day job, even though she worked at clubs several nights a week, sometimes until 4 a.m.

Anahid's timing was fortuitous. She became a professional dancer in the late I960s, when Middle Eastern dancing and music was at its peak in New York City. "Greek Town" on Eighth Avenue was booming, and standards were high. World-class dancers performed complex routines-with six parts, including rhythm changes, zills, floor and veil work. And the music was truly great: Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Persian and Israeli musicians all shared each other's music. Anahid performed at the renowned Roundtable, and at the Persian Darvish and eventually called the club Port Said "home."

A crisis changed Anahid's life again in 1972, when her employer The Saturday Review, where she had been on the editorial staff for over six years, relocated to San Francisco. The choice was to stay in New York or move; Anahid stayed and opened her dance studio. Soon another crisis occurred, when her building went co-op and she had to come up with mortgage money. Anahid knew she wanted to keep the space, which is still her home and studio. So she took four part-time jobs: free-lance editing for a magazine group, dental assistant, secretary to a headhunter, and the most desperate move of all, she took over Guirak Records, a Middle Eastern music concern which was nearly bankrupt.

The Anahid Sofian School of Middle Eastern Dance continues to be a great success after 28 years. Anahid teaches a variety of oriental dance styles, choreography, costume making, music, rhythm and dance improvisation. Floor-work survives because Anahid is one of the few who continue to teach it, both in her school and at workshops. At the New York Public Library panel, she described floor-work as "beautiful, sensuous and thrilling." Veil-work is also a favorite aspect of the dance, and another area of her expertise.
    In 1979, seven years after her school was established, she created The Anahid Sofian Dance Company. One of the oldest professional Middle Eastern dance companies in America, the troupe has a great history. They debuted at Carnegie Hall, performed twice to full houses at Town Hall, in 1999 and 2000, and performed at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, the Downtown Dance Festival, the Riverside Dance Festival, The Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and the Tribeca Arts Center.

In the late 1970s, Anahid received a small grant from New York State which enabled her to begin the study of Armenian dance with private instruction from Joyce Shenloogian of the Antranig Dance Ensemble. The grant also allowed Anahid to do research for her lecture/demonstration, "Solo Dance of Armenian Women: A Comparative Study," which became a favorite presentation at the Museum of Natural History and at the Anthropology Museum of the People of New York at Queens College.
    Anahid made an important contribution to art in America when she pioneered bringing the beauty and grace of Middle Eastern dance from cabaret to concert hall, delivering this art form to a broader, mamstream audience. In addition to the many successful performances of her dance company, Anahid (among many appearances) twice performed solo m the Museum of Modern Art's Sculpture Garden, and she appeared on the original Dick Cavett TV show (Anahid's exotic duel life of having an intellectual day job combined with nightclub work was what intrigued the Dick Cavett show staff, who were always looking for people with interesting lives). And also it was Anahid who introduced Middle Eastern dancing to the prestigious New York Dance Festival at the Delacorte Theater, and so successfully that it stayed
on the program in subsequent years.

As the Town Hall show ends, an impromptu party erupts on stage and Anahid dances with her long-time producer, Erwin Frankel. During the performance she has been a soloist of tremendous grace and power, as well as lead dancer of her troupe. And now she shares the stage with her company and guest artists. The audience is delighted to watch this spontaneous celebration, a festive end to a thrilling show.
    Anahid and the company dance off the Town Hall stage. She dances off the stage into "The Horse's Mouth" performance at St. Mark's Church, into her visionary Armenian project, into her studio full of students--and, of course, into her day job on Monday morning.

A video of the panel mentioned in tltis article, "Middle-Eastern Dance in New York City" (MGZlA 42950), can be viewed at the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 521 West 43rd Street. In addition, videos of another panel discussion and six videos of Anahid Sofian in performance are available along with files of reviews and clippings.