Every culture is different. Every culture has their own dances. Although they all differ, they have common goals — to share their love of dance and practice their traditions.
Note: Since this article was written, COVID-19 has spread and many of the planned trips and performances mentioned in the piece have been cancelled.
Танці = Dance
Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble
Immigrating to a new country requires language skills and education. Leaving home in Ukraine and immigrating to Canada is Andrey Demeshchuk’s dream.
Demeshchuk, 37, arrived in Winnipeg in September on a working permit, but he’s not an immigrant yet. He’s here as a guest instructor for the Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble (Rusalka). He said he knows teaching in a new country is going to be a challenge.
“I don’t know a lot of English yet,” said Demeshchuk. “What I have going for me are my dancing skills.”
Demeshchuk danced with the Virsky National Dance Company of Ukraine (Virsky), the premier Ukrainian dance group in the world — a group reserved for only the best; the NHL of Ukrainian dancing, if you will.
“The funny thing is, I never wanted to dance,” he said.
When he was 13 years old, Demeshchuk dreaded going to dance practices and made excuses to not go.
His sister dragged him to a practice to watch the local group Barvinok in his hometown of Vinnytsia (in central Ukraine). He said he only went to the practice to not embarrass his sister in front of her friends.
“I bit the bullet,” he said. “But I guess I bit the right bullet.”
For Demeshchuk, watching that practice was the turning point.
“Just seeing the dancers smile and enjoying what they loved doing is what inspired me to have dancing as my career,” he said.
He said if it wasn’t for Ukrainian dancing, he would’ve been a lost soul. It charted a path for him in a way that he would’ve never imagined.
This path led him to be one of Virsky’s best dancers.
This is an exciting time for Winnipeg-based Rusalka and it’s something the dancers have been waiting a long-time for.
Leanne Koroscil, who has danced for eight years in the group, said it’s a privilege to have a Virsky soloist teaching as an instructor.
“You dream of these moments,” she said. “His knowledge in the art of Ukrainian dance is strong and he has a brilliant mind for choreography.”
Demeshchuk said he is surprised by the excitement of the Ukrainian culture so far away from home.
“I’m shocked and lost when I walk out the doors of the dance studio,” he said. “It’s Winnipeg and not Taras Shevchenko Blvd. in Kyiv [Ukraine], which was my home for so many years.”
Demeshchuk said he often thinks about his favourite place back home, Virsky studio.
Virsky was all he ever knew — it was his life and job. He said leaving the company was the toughest thing he’s ever done.
“I got shivers down my spine,” he said wiping tears from his eyes. “It was the moment that you think about all the time in your head, but never actually think it will happen.”
Demeshchuk was devastated when he retired, but he said he knew his body couldn’t handle it anymore. It was time to move on.
“My back started hurting, my knees were hurting, everything just started to hurt,” he said.
Demeshchuk said he’s happy to be able to take all the things he learned and share his knowledge with everyone else.
“My heart is full when I get to do the thing that I love most — dancing,” he said.
Demeshchuk said he has big plans for Rusalka in the future. What that entails, only he knows. But one day, he wants to go back to Ukraine with Rusalka and showcase what he has achieved to all of his friends and family.
“This is my dream,” he said. “It would be super cool, but I’m already nervous thinking about it because everyone is going to be picky on everything.”
Although Rusalka has been to Ukraine twice in the past decade, most recently in July of 2019, Koroscil said she would love to go back. She said she knows Demeshchuk’s talents are going to change the group.
“I’m very excited to see what Andrey has planned for our ensemble as a guest instructor,” she said.
Demeshchuk said immigrating to Canada would mean everything. All of his hard work and dedication leading him and his family to something more — a new life.
“I want what’s best for my family,” he said. “Bringing my dance to Winnipeg is the step in the right direction.”
Note: Since the spread of COVID-19, Andrey Demeshchuk was forced to go back home to Ukraine.
מחול = Dance
Kadima Dance Company
For Hadera Short, Sunday afternoons are time for work.
“Come on guys, it’s already 4:31, practice started one minute ago,” said Short, on the dance floor.
For her, dance practice is a place to learn, and every minute is crucial.
“Get in your positions, we’re going to run through our dance.”
Kadima Dance Company, a brand-new Israeli dance group in Winnipeg, is preparing for their first show on April 5, 2020.
Short said the group is performing a new dance she choreographed for a guest appearance in the Robyn Braha School of Dance annual concert.
“Things are slowly starting to come together for us,” she said.
Short said the dance is called “Ha Hatchala,” meaning “The Beginning.” She said the dance is an energetic mix of traditional and modern Israeli dance, consisting of spins, jumps, and lines.
“Try to remember everything you’ve learned,” she said to the dancers.
Kadima practices at Kazka Dance Collective studio on Stafford Street. The space has seven mirrors at the front, ballet bars on three walls, and a floor consisting of four panels.
Short said the small studio is the perfect size for the 19 experienced dancers who have joined Kadima.
Rinat Mirkin is one of those dancers. Joining Kadima was an easy decision for her — it gives her a chance to have a fresh start for something she loves to do.
“I am part of something so new and I am helping to build it,” she said. “It is our own thing, like a brand-new baby.”
For Mirkin, it’s not just about showcasing Israeli culture — it’s about establishing the group.
“We want to dance, perform together, and enjoy each other’s company,” she said. “To me, this is the perfect combination for the success of a dance company.”
Mirkin said Short created the group from nothing. Now, she’s building something amazing.
“She [Short] has this fire inside of her,” said Mirkin. “Whenever she’s passionate about something, she gives everything she has.”
Mirkin said Short’s experiences in Canada and Israel will help Kadima excel.
In 2014, she went to Israel and joined the Jerusalem Academy of Music & Dance to further her knowledge.
“We danced every single day for hours on end,” she said.
There, she danced with some of the best Israeli dancers in the world, which was pretty intimidating for her, she said.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” said Short.
After one year, she came back home to Winnipeg in 2016 and was the dance director for The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble, a more established Israeli dance group in the city.
Then in 2018, an Israeli group in Vancouver, B.C. got in touch with her and hired her to work in their dance group.
“They brought me in to establish the Israeli culture in a much bigger market than Winnipeg,” she said. “But it didn’t feel right growing a community that I didn’t grow up into.”
Having grown up in Winnipeg, she said it was unfair for her to fake it.
“We don’t have the oceans or the mountains,” she said. “Winnipeg is a pretty special place. It’s my home and always will be.”
Short said she is taking her past experiences and applying them to Kadima’s future.
She said she always takes time at the end of practice to remind the dancers why they are there — the love of dancing.
She said she can only hope this love leads Kadima to be the best group in Winnipeg.
As the clock hits 6:30 p.m., Short gathers everyone onto the floor for the final bow — a send-off signaling that the work is done for the day.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Thank you very much and be ready to work next Sunday.”
Note: Since the article was written, Kadima Dance Company has cancelled practice and is awaiting word about their first show on April 5.
Ples = Dance
Croatian Folklore Ensemble
It’s Sunday night — time for the only Croatian dance group in Winnipeg to practice.
Petra Lucyk flicks the lights on. They flicker a few times before fully turning on. The cold basement at St. Nicholas Tavelich Parish on Main Street warms up as practice gets underway.
“There is a lot of work to be done,” said Lucyk, the artistic director of the Croatian Folklore Ensemble (Croatian Dawn).
The group is preparing a dance for the Western Canadian Croatian Folklore Festival happening in Edmonton, Alta. — a festival to celebrate Croatian culture and traditions.
The festival began in 1978 in Edmonton bringing Croatian groups from across Western Canada. Now, the festival has celebrated 42 years consecutively. It’s held every May long weekend in a different city.
“This year we are bringing a dance from the Slavonija region of Croatia,” said Lucyk.
She said this dance has four songs, each with different tones of music and steps.
The “Slavonija” dance starts off slow with the dancers singing traditional songs while both the men and women act out working in the fields. Lucyk said they are pretending to cut and bundle wheat.
She said the song is called “Uranile Mlađe Žetelice” and is the first part of the whole dance.
Singing is an essential part of Croatian culture. Matthew Pichlyk, who has danced with the group for 16 years, said he is happy his group has a good number of strong singers.
“If you don’t have it, well it’s not going to be good,” said the 22-year-old, laughing to himself.
Pichlyk said there are many dancers on stage, so having everyone work together to look as one is a challenge and the choreography needs to represent that.
“It’s hard, but you have to work at it as much as you can,” he said. “Things don’t come easy.”
The second part of the dance is called, “Ajd Na Livo, Ajd Na Desno,” meaning “Go to the Left, Go to the Right.” Lucyk said the name describes the part of the dance perfectly because dancers slowly travel to the left on stage and then have quick steps moving left to right.
“It speeds up fast,” she said.
The faster tempo leads into the third part of the dance, which is called “Logovac.” Lucyk said this part is danced in groups — usually two women with one man.
She said the ladies wear traditional white dresses, white head pieces, coloured aprons, shawls, and black opanke on their feet. Opanke are traditional shoes for dancing. The men also wear black opanke with white shirts and pants, vests, belts, and black hats.
The ladies spin around the man — Lucyk said this part is simple choreography; anyone can do it.
“The step is one-two-one-two-three and then a one-one hopping step,” she said while clapping her hands and singing it out loud.
The final part of the dance is the “Kolo,” or circle dance. She said this is one of the most basic forms and remains one of the most dominant parts of Croatian folk dance.
“As a dance and social gathering, it was the main place at which young women and men could get to know each other,” she said. “That’s what we are showing in this dance.”
Lucyk said the band that plays their live music is called Tamburica, named after the tambura, which is a traditional Croatian instrument. She said the band has five different types of instruments: Brač, Prim, Čelo, Bass, and Bugarija.
“They have different tones to bring out different musical sounds that add to the piece,” she said.
Pichlyk not only dances — he plays in the band too.
When he is dancing, he said having the band adds to each performance.
“It just motivates you to do more,” he said. “It makes the festival feel that much more at home.”
Croatian Dawn is celebrating their 50th anniversary in two years. For Lucyk, there would be nothing more special than having the festival in Winnipeg for the group’s big celebration —showcasing their culture and traditions to people living here.
“It would be an experience unlike any other,” she said.
As for now, Lucyk said she is focused on this year and wants the group to succeed when they travel to Edmonton to take part in this year’s festival.
“The dancers worked hard today,” she said. “It’s not cold down here anymore.”
Note: Since the article was written, the Western Canadian Croatian Folklore Festival has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Danse = Dance
La trouppe Jeunesse de l’Ensemble Folklorique de la Rivière Rouge
The institutionalization of French-Canadian jigging isn’t just about what is described as the joie de vivre, or joy of life. It’s also about sharing your culture with others around the world.
La trouppe Jeunesse de l’Ensemble Folklorique de la Rivière Rouge is one of Winnipeg’s few French-Canadian dance groups. This April, the group is taking their talents to Dubai for the Sharjah Heritage Days Festival.
“We don’t really have any idea what is going on,” said artistic director Christine Lamontagne. “All we know is that the trip is fully paid for.”
This 10-day “adventure,” as Lamontagne describes it, is just one of the many trips the group has been on.
“You feel like a family,” she said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Lamontagne said she is fortunate to have her two daughters, Marina, 20, and Sarah, 22 involved in dancing. Both have been dancing in the group for eight years.
Marina says that being able to dance with her family and travel together is what motivates Marina and her sister to continue dancing every year.
The sisters have gone around the world because of dance. It has taken them to places they thought they never would have gone before.
“It is so much fun to share our culture,” said Marina. “A lot of people don’t know there’s French-Canadian dancing.”
She said when people see French-Canadian dancing for the first time, they’re shocked. Marina said it’s something most people have never seen before outside of Canada.
She said what many people don’t know about their cultural dancing is how it all started.
“Women weren’t allowed to dance back in the day,” she said. “The church wouldn’t allow it because it went against their values and beliefs.”
Marina said historically, when French-Canadian’s had parties, the women would “illegally” dance in the house.
“When you jig in French-Canadian dancing, you don’t use your arms,” she said, laughing. “It was the only way they could get away with it.”
The priests never found out because when they would walk by the windows, they wouldn’t be able to see, Marina said.
The group has been all over the world — France, Indonesia, and the United States. The stand-out memory came in 2016, when the group went to Zacatecas, Mexico.
“Let’s just say we weren’t ready for the altitude change,” said Sarah.
When the group arrived in the town right in the heart of the country, they immediately had to perform.
“The first day there we had a show right off the hop,” said Sarah. “Our artistic director, my mom, told us to take it easy. We didn’t listen and were just enjoying ourselves.”
Their performance included a four-minute dance, which would normally be easy for them. However, the conditions in the mountains in Mexico aren’t the same conditions as the Canadian prairies.
“We were absolutely dead,” she said.
Marina said all the dancers were breathing heavily off stage — they couldn’t believe how hard it was to complete the dance. She said it was one of the hardest performances she has ever danced. The difference in altitude between Zacatecas and Winnipeg is about 2,200 metres.
She said these are the memories that dancers who go on trips keep with them and share proudly. For Lamontagne, as long as everyone loves what they are doing, it’s all that matters to her.
“It’s a fulfilling feeling,” she said. “When all that work comes to fruition and when you get on the stage, somewhere in the world, it’s something else and unless you have done this, you have no idea what it’s like.”
Being able to preserve their culture and traditions is what dancing is all about for Lamontagne and her daughters. Traveling as a family makes it better for the three of them.
“We are so incredibly fortunate,” said Lamontagne. “It’s so lovely to have your whole family go on these adventures with you.”
Note: Since the article was written, the Sharjah Heritage Days Festival in Dubai has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.