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Teen refugee is far from home, but dance traditions are kept close to heart

Nancy Solakian (front) dances with the Karni Dance group in Montreal.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings

Name: Nancy Solakian

Age: 19

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Home country: Syria

Nancy is rehearsing with seven other members of a folk-dancing group in the basement of an Armenian church in Montreal. Pungent reedy music is pouring from a stereo at the edge of the rehearsal area. The dance is a vigorous celebratory number with rapid, light foot movements, and by the end, Nancy's face is glowing.

This teenage refugee, who came to Canada with her Christian Armenian family in January, began ballet lessons as a child in Aleppo, the Syrian city where she was born. She switched to folk dance at five and has stuck with it ever since, in both Syria and in Beirut, Lebanon, where she lived for two years before coming to Canada.

Dancing makes her fit and graceful, she says, but that's not the main reason she does it. For her, the dances of the Armenian people are history lessons that unfold in space.

"I love all these dances, because I learn something new from each one," she says through a translator. "Each dance has its own name and story. Each represents a village from the old country, and what used to happen there."

Most of the dances she is learning in Montreal are different from those she did in Syria, because they come from different parts of the territories of ancient Armenia. Those traditional lands, which once covered large areas of present-day Turkey, Iran and Georgia, have been ruled by many other peoples over the past thousand years. As Armenians chose or were forced to move elsewhere, Nancy says, they held on to the folk dances of their villages, as tokens of the homes they left behind.

In that sense, she says, it makes no difference that Montreal is much further than Aleppo from the old territories of her people. "Even in Syria and Lebanon, I was away from Armenia," she says. "Even though I was closer by distance, I was still not in my own land."

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There are a lot of steps and characteristic arm movements to learn, both in the group dances and in the more reflective, lyrical solo dances performed by women alone. The narrative aspects of the movement aren't that obvious to an outsider, though even I can spot a traditional allusion to Black Sea fishing, which the dancers make with a fish-like shimmy of the shoulders.

The key thing, Nancy says, is to learn how to listen. "You have to let the music guide you," she says. If the steps have been learned and you follow the cues in the music, she says, everything will happen as it should.

That's the dominant impression I get from watching these young people perform their traditional dances: that for them, for now, as they move around the floor in the prescribed ways, the whole world is working just as it should.

"Whenever Armenians gather together and dance, wherever we are, we form our own little Armenia," Nancy says. "That feeling never changes. These are very old dances, and we have to continue the tradition.


Editor's note: Nancy Solakian is a Syrian-Armenian Christian. This story was updated with these details.

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