Life-Affirming Armenian Rhythms Help Heal Tiny Dancer


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By Tom Vartabedian

WHITINSVILLE, Mass. — If dancing is the best medicine, you won’t have to convince Gracie Stepanian otherwise.

The 6-year-old continues to battle a lingering illness from the day she was first born. In and out of hospitals, pain, discomfort and influx of medical prescriptions have tormented the young girl.

In short, they have not worked any better than an Armenian dance with the Siroun Ensemble based out of Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in Whitinsville, where her grandfather, Rev. Aram Stepanian, is the pastor.

Once she slips into her costume, Gracie Stepanian becomes revitalized, spinning and twirling to her heart’s content. Just being with the other children and sharing a role makes for one tiny miracle.

“Just look at the smile on her face when she dances and you’ll get an idea,” said her dad, Ara Stepanian, who was just ordained a deacon. “She has fought through all of this and enjoys the spotlight when she’s performing. It has worked wonders with her.”

Her instructor, Kristi Markarian, founder and choreographer of Siroun, calls Gracie Stepanian “a shining star” in the group.

“Her love for Armenian dancing shines through every step she takes,” said Markarian. “When she wasn’t with us for this year’s Whitinsville picnic due to medical complications, we all sensed a void. Her beautiful spirit and contagious smile were missing.”

Back she came a couple weeks later to make her presence felt at a North Andover picnic. The costumes worn on this day were imported from Armenia.

“Not only did Gracie dance but she performed as if that little body never endured a thing,” added Markarian. “She heard the music, saw her audience and like any natural performer — turned on her dancing shoes.”

The members of the ensemble embraced the young girl before her grandmother Yeretskin Margaret was able to give her a hug, followed closely by her husband. It was a proud moment.

The Siroun dancers are a group of girls ranging in age from 4-16 who perform throughout New England. Recently, during an ordination banquet in Rhode Island, oud virtuoso Johnny Berberian was entertaining the crowd of almost 300 with his instrument.

While all fell silent to hear his music, Gracie  Stepanian decided to leave her seat and dance solo, never losing a step and moving as if it were rehearsed. The audience that day received a double dose of pleasure.

“It’s moments like these that bring out joy and heart-pounding love,” said her dad. “We’re truly blessed.”

A dark pall fell over the family when Gracie Stepanian was barely 6 months old. What followed was five years of tests, medication, procedures and hospital visits, topped off with prayers. The initial diagnose was bladder reflex, similar to acid reflex common in children.

It wasn’t until years later during an ultrasound that she was diagnosed with an inflamed kidney that needed repair. A “Da Vinci robot” was used for the procedure. What appeared all well and good took another turn for the worse.

“One of the greatest reliefs each time was her ability to bounce back and dance,” said her father. “It was like a light switch. We wouldn’t be in the parking lot yet and she was her joyous self while we were heartbroken knowing it wasn’t over yet.”

Weeks after kidney surgery, back she came to dance again after being discharged from Children’s Hospital. Soon after, on came further tests when her situation became aggravated.

Parents Ara and Renee set up a constant vigilance by her bedside after being told how very sick their daughter was and unsure about the cause, much less the solution. For eight days, they slept in the same hospital room where their daughter had been confined.

“It’s hard to relive that week in the hospital because there was so much pain and anguish in our daughter’s life that Renee and I felt helpless,” said Ara Stepanian. “Answers come slow, sometimes not at all. Right now, she’s in full recovery mode and her demeanor is that of a happy little girl.”

She is back at school and on the dance floor, ready to perform at the next call. Sometimes, it’s the other way around — a role reversal so to speak.

“Gracie has a very special connection with God,” her father said. “She loves seeing her daddy on God’s stage — just like I enjoy seeing her on the dancing stage. It’s done wonders for both of us.”