Every weekend, dozens of children and teens pack a Midwood, Brooklyn dance studio, where they soar like eagles, float like swans, stomp, shout, spin and grimace for hours on end. All of this takes place under the watchful eye of Anatoliy Vartanian, director and choreographer of the LezginkaNYC dance ensemble. Lezginka is a sharp, expressive style of dance that originated in Caucasian Mountain villages hundreds of years ago and remains popular in places like Dagestan, Chechnya, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Although people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds dance Lezginka, most of Anatoliy's students are Kavkazi Jews—those from the Caucasus, also called Gorsky or Mountain Jews. Many Kavkazi Jewish families settled in Brooklyn in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Dancing Lezginka, not just on stage but at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other celebrations, is an important Kavkazi tradition, and this is part of what keeps many of Anatoliy's students returning year after year. Vartanian himself is a large reason why many of these students dance. Born in Dagestan and raised in an orphanage, Vartanian spent his youth traveling the world as a soloist in the first Lezginka Ensemble. He performed in sold-out concert houses across Europe and danced for Nikita Kruschev, Fidel Castro, and the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. To his students, Vartanian is a demanding teacher, a grandfather figure, and a living Lezginka legend.
* * *
Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer living in Brooklyn. She is a member of the Meerkat Media Collective, which recently completed Brasslands, a feature documentary about Balkan brass music.