It would be easy to dismiss Armen Ohanian as just a famous belly-dancer, but she was more than just that.
Ohanian was one of the first women to bring Middle-Eastern dancing to the Western world, but most people haven’t heard about her before. Those who have heard of her only think of her as an “exotic dancer” rather than a gifted, talented, and complex human being. So who was this woman?
Armen Ohanian was born in 1887, originally named Sophia Pirboudaghian. She grew up in modern-day Azerbaijan in a wealthy Armenian family, where she received a vast academic and artistic education. Despite her privileged upbringing, she underwent an incredible amount of tragedy at a young age. She survived a devastating earthquake in her early years, which forced her family to relocate. She later witnessed brutal anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, which tragically claimed the life of her father. After a brief marriage, Ohanian lived, worked, and studied in Russia, Turkey, and Iran, learning the art of Armenian and Iranian dances.
She didn’t need to be Western to be modern
Eventually, Armen Ohanian accepted an offer to perform in London, and eventually became a sensation throughout Europe. Western audiences were quick to fetishize and commodify her style of dancing, which they only viewed as hypersexual belly-dancing. They reduced her to a sexual object without considering the traditions and talent behind her dancing. In reality, Ohanian was an incredibly gifted dancer and choreographer.
She revolutionized dance by merging modern free-dancing with traditional Armenian and Iranian dances. Ohanian embraced tradition and innovation alike, proving that she didn’t need to be Western to be modern. Some might say that she embraced Western fetishism to further her career. I say we cannot hold her responsible for the Western reaction to her art. Ohanian danced with dignity and pride in her culture. It’s her audience’s fault, not her own, that they couldn’t recognize her humanity.
Armen Ohanian’s talent extended far beyond her dancing. She was also a gifted writer and poet, as well as a political activist.
In her later years, she immigrated to Mexico where she was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party and translated political literature. She also wrote a number of memoirs and poems, which focused on her identity as a diasporic Armenian in exile. Ohanian was not only subversive politically, but in her everyday life. She was likely bisexual and had numerous affairs with both men and women. She divorced and remarried in a time when that was incredibly uncommon. Ohanian lived her life how she wanted to live it, and that’s beyond admirable.
As a woman of Iranian-Armenian heritage, Armen Ohanian is a reminder that Middle Eastern and Armenian women have the power to be both subversive and proud of their heritage. I know firsthand that Armenian society can be very traditional. Seeing an independent, liberated, queer woman like Armen Ohanian gives me hope for other Armenian women. She is proof of the resilience of Armenian and Middle-Eastern women. This is someone who survived natural disasters, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia, and prejudice, but emerged stronger than before. She was a multi-faceted and complicated woman who couldn’t be confined to one category.
It’s impossible to define Armen Ohanian as simply a sexually liberated dancer, or a fiery political revolutionary, or a homesick poet living in exile, or an intellectual writer and translator. She was all of these things and more. I find a lot of inspiration in this incredible woman, who refused to limit herself to one art form, one talent, one career, or even one national identity. She was able to create a name for herself in a world that was hostile to the aspirations of Middle-Eastern women, and she did so with dignity and courage.
Armen Ohanian passed away in 1976, but her bold and resilient spirit still lives on in all of us. We could all take a page from her book and live our lives as she did, fearlessly and proudly, always in search of a better future.
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