“When I am dancing, I am in my pure joy.” – Anahid Sofian
Anahid Sofian is an artistic dance pioneer who brought the often misinterpreted Middle Eastern dance forms to the mainstream in the US, particularly in New York City – transforming the style in the process. Being of Armenian descent, Ms. Sofian’s knowledge goes well beyond Oriental Dance, and includes Arabic and Turkish styles, as well as Moroccan, Greek, and Armenian dances. She has choreographed over 40 performances in several genres.
A high-caliber artist, Anahid has an encyclopedic familiarity with not only these various Middle Eastern dance forms, but their respective music and history as well. Nabila Nazem, an outstanding dancer and teacher herself who has studied with Anahid throughout the years, describes her as “a repository of cultural history without peer.”
This description could not be more accurate. She is one of the few living artists who performed during the 1960s, a time considered the golden era of Oriental Dance in the United States, when “thriving ethnic clubs featured live music and entertainment every night, and authentic Oriental Dance in this country developed into a distinct style,” Nazem told Inside Arabia.
Anahid is one of the few living artists who performed during the 1960s, the golden era of Oriental Dance in the United States.
Anahid often tells stories in her workshops and shows about the days in the late 60s when she began dancing in the Greek clubs on Eighth Avenue in New York, like The Egyptian Gardens, Cafe Istanbul, Port Said, Grecian Cave, and Ali Baba. It was an era when dancers had to possess a tremendous set of skills in order to be hired to perform. Back then, dancers had to master the finger cymbals, and in some cases, the tabla (hand drums) as well.
Anahid recalls that dancers were expected to play cymbals throughout their performance, keeping them on even while performing notoriously difficult veil work. According to Anahid, “Turkish dancers ruled, [as they were] incredibly beautiful women, richly costumed, and excellent dancers who also sang.” She found it difficult to enter the scene at first, but eventually thrived as an artist.
[The Dying Craft of Oriental Dancing: Between Art and Seduction]
In this remarkable era, dancers were versatile artists who also handmade their own costumes using bugle beads, seed beads, rhinestones, crystals, and pearls. For a more “ethnic look,” Anahid explains, they fashioned bras and belts with real coins that were purchased at a money exchange shop. Each coin was then punctured with a jeweler’s drill in order to sew it onto buckles and antique jewelry. The veils and skirts were made of silk chiffon, satin, and other fabrics.
During a series of presentations entitled “Remembrances” that Anahid held in her studio in 2019, she showcased some of these incredibly creative and exquisite costumes. Though times have changed, Anahid continues teaching high-level technique and transmitting her love of excellence in dance to her students.
Anahid was initially trained in ballet and modern dance. When she suffered a knee injury in the late 60s, she discovered Middle Eastern Dance as part of her physical therapy. She fell in love with it and decided to master it. Because there were no formal Oriental Dance classes in the 1960s, Anahid is self-taught. She learned by observing the dancers and musicians at the clubs she would frequent. With her strong dance background, Anahid was able to go home from the clubs and practice the styles she had seen, working long hours to break down each of the movements.
At the time, “belly dance” was considered vulgar and not taken seriously. However, despite the unfavorable popular opinion, Anahid appreciated the richness of the dance and was determined to bring it to the public in hopes of sparking greater acceptance. She succeeded and was soon performing and producing shows at various renowned theaters, including New York’s Town Hall and The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Anahid has performed both as soloist and with her company, which she formed in 1979, in prestigious venues in New York such as The Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden, the United Nations headquarters, the Uris Theatre on Broadway, and Carnegie Hall. She was also the first Oriental dancer selected to perform in the famed New York Dance Festival at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. This appearance formally established Middle Eastern Dance as a “respected” art form and facilitated the process for future dancers.
After attending a Folkloric Dance Festival in Marrakech, Morocco, and as part of her efforts to share Oriental Dance, Anahid was inspired to open her studio in 1972, which has been and continues to be home to generations of dancers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, dance studios were forced to shut down. Without any income for months, many of them had to close their doors permanently, making the arts one of the fields most severely impacted by the pandemic.
However, and even though her studio has been facing serious financial hardships due to the lockdown, Anahid did not consider retiring. Instead, she began teaching classes via Zoom, an incredible feat that allowed students from all over the world to study with her—from Japan to the UK, and from various states across the US, including former students who have left New York.
Today, at 85, Anahid is still performing and continues to teach multiple times a week. In-person classes finally resumed in June, and Anahid is as energetic and excited to teach as ever. Her students could not be happier to be back as well. In fact, it is an honor for this writer to be part of her intermediate class on Thursdays at her studio. It is a magical place dedicated to beauty, art, and joy, where women dance together, bonding over our mutual love of Oriental Dance. Anahid’s 90-minute classes begin with a vigorous yet relaxing half-hour warm up that incorporates moves she learned from various disciplines throughout her life and that aim to strengthen, stretch, and prepare the body to dance.
When she moves, Anahid Sofian, who has also taught at NYU, Hunter College, Sarah Lawrence College, and the New School, exudes grace, splendor, and elegance—her dancing never failing to move souls. Women of all ages study with Anahid and find her classes healing and powerful. She teaches us to connect to our bodies, and to be grounded and soft while moving in a precise and graceful manner. This combination has a profound impact on one’s mental and physical wellbeing. As an artist and teacher, Anahid is generous, ingenious, caring, and attentive. She is a beloved figure that New York City in particular, and the dance world in general, cannot afford to lose.
*A group of Anahid Sofian’s students are organizing a fundraising campaign to keep her studio open during the gradual process of reopening. To support the fundraising campaign and keep Anahid Sofian’s studio open, please visit this GoFundMe page.
*To learn more about Anahid Sofian or take her Zoom or live classes, please visit her website at: https://anahidsofianstudio.com.