I can still remember the musty smell of the small, poorly lit dressing room in the Soviet-style theatre of Truskavets. All 20 of us females were crammed in what was meant to hold no more than ten people comfortably. Everyone went out for lunch, and I decided to stay back to start applying my stage makeup.
I felt like I hit the jackpot with the entire room to myself. Having time to put on my makeup before a big show is a calming process for me.
As I began to apply my foundation, I saw someone at the corner of my eye peeking their head into the room.
“Put on your Hopak costume. You have to go outside and hand out pamphlets in the main square.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“Because you speak Ukrainian — now hurry up.”
“Is anyone else doing it? What about Alexander?”
I could hear the sound of her footsteps diminishing as she walked down the hallway. Alexander is my brother; we’ve been dancing with the Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble for a while.
When my mama came to the dressing room to tell me this, I was peeved. I am the type of person who likes to plan and, more importantly, be in control of that plan.
I wouldn’t have minded if someone had notified me sooner. I don’t like being rushed before a performance, especially an important one. How many times does a Ukrainian dancer from Canada have the opportunity to perform in Ukraine?
Usually not more than once.
We just had our tech rehearsal and the floor situation was stressing everyone out. The floor was uneven and awkward to dance on. It was like someone chopped a tree and slapped it down into rows to make a stage.
Most of the time we perform, we are dancing on less than ideal flooring — carpet, concrete, pavement, grass, laminate, weird Lego-like flooring on grass…the list goes on and on.
But this show was a big deal for everyone. Most of the dancers had never travelled overseas before.
I threw on my Hopak costume and quickly applied red lipstick and mascara. I decided to put on my full stage makeup later.
I grabbed a stack of pamphlets, joined my brother and the other dancers outside the theatre, and headed to the main square in Truskavets.
Truskavets is a resort town. People from all over Ukraine vacation in that area during the summer months. The town offered free shows for the visitors in their main theatre.
Of course, we wanted people to come to our show in Truskavets. Performances are always better with a full house.
I’ve performed in many places, including festivals in North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. But the best crowd was at home in Winnipeg at Folklorama’s Ukraine-Kyiv Pavilion.
That night before we went on stage, the crowd was already chanting and cheering us on.
“Ru-sal-ka, Ru-sal-ka, Ru-sal-ka.”
The energy felt like a huge wave hitting my body — it was electrifying. I remember standing backstage, jumping up and down trying to hype myself up to meet their energy level.
When we hit the ten out of the thirteen-minute mark in our Hopak, we needed the crowd to clap, cheer, and chant as loud as they could to give us the energy we needed to power through the dance.
This was the most exhausting part of the dance because we knew the end was near, but we still had one finale to go — most Hopak’s have two finales.
I felt like the Energizer Bunny. I jumped a few inches higher, spun a bit quicker, and smiled a bit larger than I would have without this crowd.
I didn’t know if handing out pamphlets would get the people in the Truskavets square to the same energy level as that night at Folklorama a few summers ago, but I could try.
I’ve done marketing like that before; for example, asking people in the Garden City Shopping Centre to buy Rusalka fundraising tickets. Most of the time, people did anything in their power to avoid us.
I had a feeling this would be a similar experience.
As we entered the square, the dancers dispersed to talk to people. Sitting on a bench were two middle-aged women. I made eye contact with one of the ladies, walked over, and said my orchestrated spiel in Ukrainian.
“Come to our free concert this afternoon, we’re from Canada.”
The women gasped. “You’re from Canada?”
“And you speak Ukrainian? And you’re a Ukrainian dancer?”
It’s interesting, about three-quarters of the people I talked to were so surprised to find out I am a second-generation Ukrainian Canadian who can converse in their language. Now this was a big difference in reaction from all of those people in Garden City Mall.
I felt a connection to each person I talked to. It almost felt like I’d known them for a long time.
I even had a few people ask to take photos with me. One person even tried to pay me for taking a photo with his family. It was so sweet and funny at the same time. He tried to give me one Ukrainian Hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency), which equates to around half a cent Canadian.
I am a nobody from Winnipeg who dances for fun. Why do you want to take a picture with me and even try to pay me for it?
But then it got me thinking, what does it mean for us to perform in Ukraine, and what does our presence mean to the people there? What I experienced in Truskavets tells me it means something. Why do I feel so connected to the people in Ukraine?
Why do I feel at home in Ukraine?
Performing in Ukraine
For many born and raised Ukrainian Canadians, travelling to Ukraine is almost a rite of passage. But for Ukrainian dancers, performing in Ukraine is more than that — it’s like the Super Bowl of Ukrainian dance.
Dancing in Ukraine is a “this is what I’m going to tell my grandkids” experience.
I’ve been on two dance trips to Ukraine with my dance group — once in summer 2013 and again in 2019.
On dance trips, we perform at different cultural festivals around the world showcasing Ukrainian dance.
Some people had never seen anything like Ukrainian dance before. This was most prominent when we travelled to Peru in 2016.
The crowds lost their minds when they watched our Hopak. They’d never been exposed to Ukrainian dance before.
When we travel to Ukraine, we don’t offer the same novelty that we would in places like Peru. It’s a different kind of experience — one where you feel like you’ve come home.
Independence Day of Ukraine
I can still vividly remember performing in Lviv’s Rynok Square on Independence Day. This show was the highlight of my first dance trip to Ukraine in 2013. I was only 16 years old.
Rynok Square is the main square in Lviv — enriched by the history of the cobblestone streets and the pastel colours of the centuries-old buildings that surround it.
The square was bustling with people in the various coffee shops, restaurants, and outdoor markets.
A busker playing his saxophone on the sidewalk and the chatter coming from the outdoor patios represent the lively spirit of the city and its people.
But on Independence Day, this spirit was even more prominent.
We were performing one of our dances called Kalyna. A kalyna is a cranberry bush and a national symbol of Ukraine. It grows across the country and represents beauty, life, and love for the homeland.
The dance opened with a song called “Oy u Luzi Chervona Kalyna,” the country’s second national anthem.
This patriotic song talks about how the kalyna symbolizes Ukraine as a nation and how its people will always protect it — keeping it safe and free.
Our costumes for this piece are bright red with kalyna embroidered on our sashes and blouses. The ladies wear kalyna in their vinky — the flower wreath headpieces — and hold small kalyna bushes.
As we began to dance, those who were sitting in the crowd recognized the song and stood up as a sign of respect.
At that moment I had a tunnel vision experience. All I could see was a sea of blue and yellow flags waving in the air among a crowd of proud Ukrainians singing along. I can still hear the echoes of the crowd singing in my head.
I’ve performed this dance many times in other countries, in front of crowds at Ukrainian festivals in North America and here in Winnipeg, but nothing compares to this performance.
Seeing those patriotic people in the crowd made me think about my immigrant grandparents and all of the people who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of Ukraine.
In that moment, I felt a stronger connection to my grandparents and had a greater appreciation for the sacrifices they made to give my family a better life.
All of those thoughts and emotions started to overwhelm me.
I felt tears forming in my eyes. It’s hard to have a good stage face when you’re trying to hold back tears.
Psychological researcher Judith Fein says in a Psychology Today article, “What is your emotional genealogy?” visiting the place your ancestors came from is a powerful and connecting experience that allows you to discover yourself .
From her research on ancestral travel, Fein believes experiencing the landscape, climate, buildings, food, and customs of your ancestors’ lives is a powerful way to find out who they were and, in turn, who you are.
In a way, as dancers, we experience those aspects of ancestral travel through the dances themselves. The Ukrainian landscapes, regions, traditions, stories, and cultures create the basis for the stories we portray throughout our dances.
The fast footwork, energetic jumps, and tricks represent the lively spirit of Ukraine’s people, while the bright colours and patterns of the embroidery are representative of the land and its nature.
Ukrainian dance creates an opportunity for Ukrainian Canadians to connect to our ancestral homeland before we even step foot in Ukraine.
What does performing in Ukraine mean to other dancers?
During our trip to Ukraine in summer 2019, it was interesting to see some of the newer dancers’ reactions while visiting Ukraine for the first time.
One of those dancers was my friend Janelle Pashko.
Before we went on the trip, I remember Janelle telling me how she expected to feel an emotional connection to Ukraine through the dance, traditions, and culture.
Freelance journalist Dana McMahan says in her NBC News article, “Why DNA tourism may be the big travel trend for 2019,” people are interested in ancestral travel because it involves knowing who your family is and where they came from.
Fast forward to after our show in Truskavets, Janelle said the entire performance was surreal — like living out a dream you’ve imagined for a long time.
Truskavets is close to where Janelle’s grandfather grew up. She felt as if she were dancing for him and his family.
Markian Duplak has dedicated his life to Ukrainian dance. After he performed in Ukraine on various dance tours, he was drawn to the professional Ukrainian dancer lifestyle.
After he danced with me in Rusalka, he moved to Ukraine to learn from and perform with the Virsky National Ukrainian Dance Company of Ukraine for two years.
Virsky is by far the most well-known and talented Ukrainian dance group in the world. If you don’t believe me then check them out on YouTube – they even made The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Instagram.
This is like the American Ballet Theatre of Ukrainian dance. If that reference doesn’t make sense to you then think of it as playing football in the NFL — top level kind of stuff.
Markian said expressing himself through dance has always been his goal — especially being able to express that love while dancing with Virsky in front of sold-out crowds in Ukraine.
My mama and I are close, but we are closest when it comes to Rusalka.
My mama danced with the group in the 90s and even danced when she was pregnant with me. She always tells me performing in Ukraine is different from anywhere else because it’s where our ancestors are from — it’s our home.
As an alumna, she comes as a support staff on our tours and travelled with us to Ukraine this past summer. My mama is proud to know Ukrainian dance is as important to me and my brother as it is to her.
While standing backstage at our Truskavets performance in summer 2019, she said she was able to reminisce on her performances in Ukraine while watching her children have a similar experience.
For my mama, Ukrainian dance connects her to her ancestors and to her children.
One of the most memorable parts from the Truskavets show was seeing my mama smiling in the wings of the stage.
One moment that stood out to me was when I was performing our Vesnianka dance.
Vesnianka is one of my favourite dances. It’s an all-female lyrical dance set in the springtime. This dance is different than the others — it’s gentler and softer compared to Hopak’s fast footwork, spins, and explosive jumps.
This dance awakens spring, calls out the birds to fly, and brings out the warmth of the sunshine. We wear long white dresses embroidered with pastel flowers and leaves — it makes me feel beautiful.
I love this dance because its story, music, and movements bring out my deepest emotions. I feel so much energy through every movement I make. From the expression on my face all the way through my fingertips and toes, I feel an electric force pushing me to extend my movements a little bit longer with more purpose.
Toward the end of the dance that day in Ukraine, I looked to my left and made eye contact with my mama. In that moment, I knew I was home.
After we finished our Kalyna dance on Independence Day in 2013, a woman who watched our performance approached me with tears in her eyes. She thanked me for carrying on her traditions and culture outside of Ukraine.
At that moment I knew this was something much bigger than me. I realized how lucky I was to grow up in a country that allows me to practice my culture and traditions without repercussion.
I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in a country where you are unsure whether or not people who have left remember where they came from and who their ancestors are.
During the time of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians were banned from showcasing their traditional dances, singing their traditional songs, or speaking their language.
Talking with this woman proved to me Ukrainian dancing in Canada gives the people of Ukraine hope and confidence that their culture is safe and prominent in other countries.
Since Markian lived and performed with professional dancers in Ukraine, I wondered what his friends thought about Ukrainian dancers in Canada and the culture around it.
He said the majority of them said they are thankful, impressed, and taken by surprise when they hear groups from Canada are performing Ukrainian dance and keeping their tradition alive.
Break a Leg
Even though I was born in Canada, I grew up Ukrainian. For as long as I can remember, I spoke Ukrainian at home with my family, practiced the cultural traditions, and sang the traditional songs.
For me, home is when I’m dancing.
The familiarity of the steps, the music, and the dancers around me blend my cultural life in Canada with my ancestral life in Ukraine.
Performing in Ukraine is what connects all dancers on a deeper level. Although we all share similar experiences, our perspectives, and understanding of those experiences are special to us and shape our own connections to our homeland.
I am happy my mama told me to go hand out those show pamphlets.
Right before the curtain goes up and the music begins, I take a moment to close my eyes and think about the opportunities Ukrainian dance gives me. I feel at home, deeply rooted in the traditions and stories of my ancestors.
I open my eyes, take a deep breath, and dance.