WASHINGTON–In honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) decided to host a special three-day, multicultural festival celebrating the diversity of this nation. Officially titled “Out of Many: A Multicultural Festival of Music, Dance and Story,” the inaugural festivities included a Sunday afternoon performance of traditional Armenian dance by Washington, DC’s very own Arax Armenian Dance Ensemble.
“Performing at the festival was such an honor and it was truly meaningful to be included in a festival that embodied the philosophy of the new president – a respect and honoring of multicultural diversity,” said Carolyn Rapkievian, Director of the Arax Ensemble. “We had worked especially hard to polish the dances that we included and are very proud from an artistic as well as a cultural standpoint.”
Formed in 2005, the Arax Armenian Dance Ensemble is a ten-member company which performs at festivals and private events throughout the greater Washington, DC area. Named after the Arax River in historic Armenia, the group performs traditional Armenian folk dances as well as dances choreographed from traditional Armenian steps.
One of its current members is Daniel Stepanian-Bennett, a native of Detroit, MI who made his way to the nation’s capital under the auspices of the ANCA’s Capital Gateway Program. After performing for several years with the Hamazkayin Dance troupe in Detroit (coincidentally also named “Arax”) Dan continued to pursue his passion for Armenian dance by joining the Arax Ensemble of Washington in 2008.
“It was a great show,” says Stepanian-Bennett of the performance at the NMAI. “The Smithsonian Institution and everyone at the Museum of the American Indian were great hosts. The theater was also a great venue to perform in.”
The turnout for the festival was very strong, with many local area Armenia’s in the audience as well as those who were witnessing Armenian dance for the first time. “It’s truly an honor to be a part of someone’s %u218first experience’ to Armenian dancing,” emphasizes Stepanian-Bennett.
As explained by the Museum’s official program, this was precisely the purpose of the festival itself: to highlight the rich cultural diversity encompassed in America and present “the many contributions of our nation from its many cultures.”
“The museum wanted to include a range of cultures and reached out to local performers,” explains Rapkievian, who actually serves as Assistant Director of Education and Museum Programs at the NMAI. Her colleagues at the Smithsonian were familiar with her Armenian ensemble and quickly approached her to request their participation.
In addition to Armenian cultural dancing, the program also included African dancers from Senegal, Cherokee storytellers, a mariachi ensemble, traditional Irish music and step dancers, a Navajo blues and rock band, and a Tlingit group from Alaska, among many other performances. It was, in fact, the first multicultural program the NMAI has hosted since its opening in September 2004.
Under the instruction of Rapkievian, the Arax Ensemble is currently preparing for several other key performances in the metropolitan DC area, including a local private performance in March as well as a public performance in early summer at the annual Armenian Festival in Alexandria, VA.
Editor’s Note: Serouj Aprahamian is a member of the Washington DC ‘Ani’ Chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation. For more information about the Arax Ensemble, you can visit their website at www.araxdance.org.