A Dutch teacher of Armenian traditional dances

This week’s Hetq Online carries an article about a Dutch woman, Tineke van Geel, who has a passion for traditional Armenian dances and teaches them all over the world. I had come across her name several times before, but I had never got around to mentioning her here on my blog, but this seems to be as a moment as any.

Van Geel has been learning and teaching Armenian dances for close to thirty years and has visited Armenia many, many times to study and lately to get the people who are learning the dances acquainted with the country and its culture. Tineke van Geel’s first visit to Armenia to study the dances was in 1985, when Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union and her foreign appearance surprised many an Armenian on the streets. She has been back many times since, studying at the Sayat Nova conservatory and the Yerevan State Pedagogical Academy.

“Of course, it was strange to have a foreigner wanting to participate in the training, but everybody was always very responsive. The only disadvantage was that I was frequently the tallest one present. Therefore I was put in the leading position in the line, not having a clue where to go or what to do!”

These days she still surprises local Armenians. In the interview, Van Geel recounts an event that happened during one of her trips to Armenia with a group of her student from Holland:

“In the restaurant Cilicia our group began dancing Armenia dances. I cannot describe the astonishment of the Armenians present when they saw forty-seven foreigners dancing their dances! Later they joined us.”

Van Geel was also staying in Armenia at the end of the 80s and at the time of the Kharabagh war, when food was rationed:

““You received a coupons for butter, coffee and sugar. The first time that I ‘scored’ my coffee, I found out that I had to burn the beans myself. An action which was entirely new to me and of course there was an awful smell burning them in the kitchen of the student hostel in Norki Massiv.

One time my husband called me and asked me how everything was and I cried out full of excitement: ‘I have found a chicken.'”

During this period she didn’t just spend her time learning new dances, she also helped in the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake:

““The biggest impact in my life was the earthquake in Armenia. I will never forget the suffering I saw. I traveled to the earthquake areas with members of the Dutch Red Cross, who were delivering goods and wanted to communicate with survivors about their needs. It was a shocking experience. I also helped at the hospital in Yerevan. In the same period, refugees from Karabakh were treated there, so I saw a lot of misery and grief.”

She has developed a special way of teaching Armenian dances to Europeans:

“You have to teach Armenian dances to Europeans slowly, because they think they can never master the style and then they don’t want to touch it again. Armenian dances are difficult in terms of involving all body in the movements. It is hard for Europeans; it is not our culture to work with the hands, so I build the repertoire gradually. […]
“I teach Armenian dances as if I am preparing people a sandwich. First bread, they know what it is, they take it, then butter, again well-known, then ham, etc. Many people say that my classes are successful just because I split the complicated movements into the simple elements and present them step by tep.”

I can relate to what she says about Europeans learning Armenian dances. I myself have tried to learn some – not even the complicated ones, but the dances that are generally danced at parties at home. Dutch people generally tend to have ‘sticks up their a**es’, they don’t really have a feel for rhythm and moving their bodies to music and they’re not used to doing that. Dancing just isn’t part of our culture. It took me a lot of time to get used to get up and dance and, to be honest, I still don’t feel comfortable unless I have had some alcohol to loosen up (it is good that the dancing starts after the vodka-flooded dinner!).

There is something nice about just getting up to dance with your friends in the living-room. It is something I appreciate in Armenians, not just their ability to celebrate even a simple (???) dinner with friends at home, but also the way dancing is a part of the culture: hardly anyone seems to be ashamed or afraid to get up and dance and move. Very different from Dutch (dinner-)parties, where everyone seems to be glued to their chairs the entire evening, as if they are afraid to move.

The article on Tineke van Geel can be read here.