This story begins on a rickety wooden stage of a rundown Soviet theatre in the small city of Truskavets, Ukraine. I am holding my final pose, after having danced the last dance in a two-hour afternoon show. It’s a pose that’s meant to show pride and strength, one that’s used in the most patriotic Ukrainian dances. My arms are raised above my head, in a v-shape, fingers straight and pointing to the peeling ceiling above me. The lights are bright, and I can’t make out a single face in the audience, but among the cheers and applause I can hear them shouting “molodtsi!” a word that can’t be directly translated into English, but means something like “you did great” or “well done.” The curtain closes, and I pray the sweat running down my face mixes with my tears, so no one asks why I’m crying.
There comes a time in every dancer’s life when she or he performs a show that’s unlike all the others. One that all other shows get compared to. For me, this was that show. Because while my fellow dancers got to experience dancing in the country of their ancestors, I got to dance in a place I used to call home.
Most Canadian dancers start in a Creative Movement class. This is the class where children are taught how to move their bodies. They’re encouraged to play games, run around, and burn as much energy as they can. I never did a Creative Movement class. I don’t think it’s even something that existed in Ukraine at the time.
I was born in 1995, in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, only four years after the Soviet Union fell. Our country was struggling to piece itself together after years of corruption and cruel government, so children’s ballet classes weren’t on anyone’s priority list. It sure wasn’t on my parents’ list. They were struggling to find paying jobs to make ends meet. Two years after I was born my dad left me and my mom to move to New Jersey on a Green Card and work as a bricklayer. He was a mechanical engineer by trade, but that doesn’t matter much in a country that had no jobs to offer. I didn’t see my dad again until I was seven.
I’ve met many immigrants since moving to Canada, one thing we have in common is we did not leave our homes and families because we wanted to. Many immigrants leave their country because of war or terrorism, but many also leave because there are no opportunities left for them. By 2001 my parents decided there was not enough in Ukraine for them to justify staying there. The job market hadn’t improved, and my mom, a trained teacher, was working odd jobs to pay the bills. The monthly allowance my dad sent helped, but the majority of it was put into savings, which, unbeknownst to me, would be all the money we had to start a new life in Canada.
At this point, the knowledge I had of my dad came from Kodak pictures and monthly phone conversations. When I was six, I remember watching the Twin Towers fall on TV, and my mom repeatedly calling a long-distance number. Later I found out it was because my dad was working in New York at that time and she had no idea if he had died that day.
My dad didn’t die during the 9/11 attacks. But he did see the tall steel towers, similar to the kinds he worked on, crumble from the coast of Jersey City. That’s where we were initially supposed to move, but the immigration documents fell through, and our new destination became a place called Winnipeg, where we had some family who came over in the ‘90s. I couldn’t even pronounce it.
When I met my dad after his long absence, I ran away. He looked like the person in the photos and sounded like the man on the phone, but other than those physical things I had no idea who he was. It took weeks before I could even be alone in the same room as him. My dad never wanted to move halfway across the world when he had a wife and young daughter at home. But he recognized the alternative was to keep living in Ukraine, working menial jobs, and living pay cheque to pay cheque. It’s reasons like this that immigrants, when they come to a new country, are so eager to work and make a living for themselves. I don’t know a single immigrant family today that doesn’t throw itself into work for a chance to have what they couldn’t in their home country.
My parents did their best to give me experiences other kids might have taken for granted. With the allowance we received from my dad, my mom would put money aside to take me to art lessons and on museum trips, and later, dance classes. I wasn’t a hyper kid, but those weekly ballet classes gave me a sense of peace. I loved the structure they provided in my life, knowing that every week I had my ballet class to look forward to. I would parade around the house in my leotard and cloth slippers, waiting for a class that was hours later. But when we moved to Canada, the dance lessons stopped. My parents needed all the money they had to help establish us here, and dance lessons weren’t a priority. I don’t think my parents knew how much I needed that structure again in my life after the move.
Changement is a ballet term that means ‘change of feet.’ It’s a relatively simple move that involves a dancer leaping into the air and landing with the opposite foot in front than they started with. It’s usually a move that joins two moves together, and it can happen so quickly that unless you’re looking for it, you’re sure to miss it. When I think back to my first weeks in Canada, I’m reminded of the constant change that followed me everywhere I went. In a way, I was always starting with one foot and somehow ending with the wrong one in front. Not on purpose, like in a changement, but because I didn’t know any better.
I remember two things very vividly from our move: my parents paying off a couple of Polish border control officers so they wouldn’t open our suitcases and take whatever they wanted, which was something that routinely happened, and the incredible amount of lights, zigzagging this way and that, creating an illuminating grid over the earth, as our plane descended into Winnipeg. We met our relatives at the bottom of the escalator, before the Hug Rug was a thing. We stayed with my cousin’s family while my parents tried to figure out our living situation. My cousin and I lived in separate towns in Ukraine. I only met him a handful of times before I found myself sharing a bedroom with him. But he was my first friend in Canada, and I would follow him everywhere for the first days that we were here.
My cousin and I got along when we were at home. He would show me his video games, and we would watch Disney movies together, our favourite being The Little Mermaid. Thinking back to it, I understand why we loved that movie so much. We were both fish out of water, thrust into unknown territory by our circumstances.
My cousin and I were the same age, so I was placed in his grade one class. My family arrived in Winnipeg in January of 2002, and as anyone who has switched schools before will know, coming to a new school in the middle of the school year automatically places you at a social disadvantage. It also doesn’t help when you don’t speak the language, or have a name that’s hard to pronounce.
It was a bitterly cold January morning when I joined my cousin for my first day at school. Walking into the colourful classroom, filled with books I couldn’t read, homework I couldn’t do, and classmates I couldn’t talk to, I felt the smallest and most insignificant I had ever felt before. I’ve often described the experience as one where I lost my senses all of a sudden. I couldn’t read the letters in front of me, couldn’t even put them together to make a word that I wouldn’t understand anyway. Someone would say something to me, and I would be forced to stare back blankly, not knowing if they made a statement or asked a question. And it wasn’t even something I could guess, because even the intonation in this new place was different. I felt like I had gone deaf and blind at age seven.
I didn’t understand it much at the time, but growing up and talking to other people my age who immigrated as children, I learned that they shared my feelings of being incredibly overwhelmed by their new surroundings. Recently, I read a study by the University of Toronto that interviewed newcomer youth, between the ages of 14-18 who have been in Canada for less than five years. It found that for newcomer youth, linguistic barriers were some of the biggest challenges in the settlement process, resulting in difficulty making friends, understanding the teacher and curriculum, and being bullied due to low English fluency. Although I felt completely alone in not understanding the writing on the whiteboard or the words the teacher read out during a spelling test, it’s a reality that immigrant children face in schools every day.
When I first moved to Canada I thought I had an automatic friend in my cousin. We played together at home, so why would things be any different at school? But on our first lunch together one of the kids in the class came up and said something to me. She might have introduced herself or asked a question, I can’t remember. But what I do remember was my cousin’s response when I turned to him to ask what she wanted.
“Well you should know that.”
I didn’t. And he knew that. But kids are like adults, and they look for ways to climb the social ladder. It got a laugh out of the kids around us and maybe it got him closer to the top of the grade one class’s social hierarchy. I never asked him why he did that. Instead, I walked to my desk, sat down and ate my lunch alone. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of lonely desperation I experienced when even my cousin turned his back on me. We went back to playing together at home and never talked about that incident. But from then on, I felt inferior.
A balancé in ballet is described as a “rocking step,” a move where a dancer shifts his or her weight from one foot to another in a fluid motion. Those first years in Canada I tried to find my balance by learning the language and nuances of my new home, and trying to understand where being Ukrainian fit into all that. I was having an identity crisis at age seven.
When I lived in Ukraine, I didn’t have the same appreciation for my culture I do now. I experienced my culture in small ways, like going to Easter service dressed in my finest Ukrainian blouse, proudly holding a basket of paska, meats, and cheeses to be blessed. I went to Ukrainian weddings, where the celebration would go until the sun rose, and vodka was poured out of litre jugs. I experienced my culture through our large family dinners, where the adults would trade stories about past relatives and the mark they left on the family. We would regularly feast on fresh kovbasa, creamy cheeses, hand pinched varenyky and tender holubtsi. I remember the stream of neighbours coming in for a cup of coffee and a slice of poppy seed torte, gossiping with my mom and baba for hours, while I played in a corner, happy to hear the chatter. I experienced my culture through its community. Humans are social creatures. We crave social intimacy and friendship, and when that’s suddenly taken away, we suffer. When I moved to a new country, I lost those familiar luxuries.
I often think about how those first months in Canada affected the person I am today. If I stayed in Ukraine, would I have continued to shine in my schoolwork? When I was growing up, my mom spent a lot of time teaching me to read and write. I think it was her way of using the teacher skills she couldn’t find a job for. When I went to school in my hometown, I was more prepared than many of the other kids. I excelled in the schoolwork and would often help the other kids after I was done. I was incredibly proud of this. I would go to the library and take out books that were designated for the third and fourth graders because I knew I could read them. I lost this when I came to Canada. Suddenly I was at the very bottom of the class, staying silent at the back of the room when normally my hand would’ve shot up.
I think the months of uncertainty and self-doubt I experienced at the beginning affected me and changed me to become the more reserved person I am today. It also changed the way I make friends. Before, my mom used to make jokes that I was friends with someone on every floor of our 12-storey apartment building. I would easily run-up to another person and strike up a conversation on the rusty old Soviet playground we all shared. Now, I wait for people to initiate a conversation with me. I lost the self-confidence I had in talking to other kids, mostly because I was scared they would make fun of me, which they did. That constant stream of being shut down, of trying to talk to someone just to be laughed at and corrected, affected me deeply. I even struggled in my relationship with my parents. I couldn’t run to my mom with homework questions anymore because she didn’t know any better than I did. My dad was rarely home because he was working 12-hour days at a construction company to help make our mortgage payments. We didn’t eat family dinners together because we were seldom all together.
It was in this period of my life when I first got a taste of depression. Mental illness was not something that we talked about in our household. It might have had something to do with the Ukrainian culture, where you get up and go on with your day because your ancestors had it so much worse than you. My parents would often point out how lucky we were to be here, and even as a child I couldn’t bring myself to let my parents down by telling them I was unhappy. I would come home from school, with homework I didn’t know how to do, go to my room and stay there. We no longer lived with my cousin, so even that form of socialization was gone. There were constant money problems, because for a while my parents had trouble holding down jobs. I would listen to them argue frequently, at one point hearing my mom ask my dad why he brought us to this “hell.”
This is the reality for many immigrant children. When an immigrant family is trying to navigate their new life, immigrant children often get exposed to their family’s struggles that they would normally be shielded from. Reading the University of Toronto study, I learned that the majority of immigrant youth interviewed in the study felt the difficulties their parents faced in entering the Canadian labour market were key causes of depression, sadness, family tensions, and other mental health stresses on their family. With so much that comes with moving to a new country, it might be hard for parents to support their children who are also facing the stresses of establishing a new life.
I learned English faster than my parents. Later, when I was taking a psychology course at university, I learned that I came to Canada at the perfect age to learn a second language fluently. But the quicker I picked up English, the more my parents and my roles felt reversed. I would often have to translate documents and bills because I was the one in our family that could. I remember sitting in an insurance office with my parents, about two years after our move, attempting to explain to them what a deductible was. The person helping us was kind and tried to explain it to me in terms a nine-year-old would understand, but I felt resentment toward my parents for putting me in a situation most kids wouldn’t be in. It created a shift between us and forced me into a position of responsibility for my family that I didn’t know how to handle.
Assemblé might be one of my favourite ballet moves. It’s a quick move that requires the dancer to slide their foot along the ground, before leaping into the air where the second foot meets it and together both feet land on the ground. It’s a step that helps ground a dancer in what is a flurry of motion. My first year in Canada was a blur, but by the second-year things started to look up and I began to feel more at ease in my new home. My English was getting better and while I was still struggling to make friends, people were at least friendly to me. But I didn’t have a niche where I belonged. I didn’t have much in common with the other kids, I was still trying to understand this new culture and the social nuances of a Canadian second-grade playground. I noticed that many of the kids bonded on the school’s soccer field, but I had no talent with a soccer ball.
It was a September afternoon and our second-grade class was in the gym for an assembly when I first experienced Ukrainian dance in Canada. I wasn’t paying attention to the announcement the principal was making at the front of the room because a girl was telling me about something dramatic that happened between a couple of classmates at lunch. Suddenly, a flurry of motion and music at the front of the gym caught my attention and dancers, dressed in traditional Ukrainian Hopak costumes, exploded onto the gym floor. They danced with vigour, showing off high flying tricks, kicks, and spins. To me the girls looked like spinning top toys, their ribbons flying around them in a rainbow of colour. I don’t think I blinked once during the entire performance. I was so captivated to see something that I knew from Ukraine but never experienced here. After it was over, the principal thanked the Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, and I never forgot that name. Two weeks later, I was enrolled in Ukrainian dance lessons.
I was too young to realize back then that my desire to be a part of that dance group stemmed from my need to be part of a community again. Being back in dance classes allowed me a reprieve. During those classes, I didn’t have to stutter through words I didn’t know. I could express myself through movement. It changed my self-esteem because it allowed me to finally express myself freely. I loved putting on our bright costumes, a different one for every region of Ukraine, and intricate headpieces. I loved performing in recitals, and especially Folklorama, which to me felt so personal, like saying “come be part of our culture, look at what we can do.”
In 2013 I auditioned for the Rusalka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble and was accepted. Thinking back, I wasn’t nearly good enough to be there, but when the artistic director called me to tell me the news he said he saw that I had the passion for it. I still felt like that seven-year-old kid when I walked into my first practice at the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada hall on the corner of Selkirk Avenue and Main Street, where Rusalka has practised for over 55 years. The dancers I saw there were incredible, and I felt like I was in second grade again, standing on the periphery and just watching them do their thing.
Rusalka didn’t welcome me in with open arms, and I didn’t expect it to. These people were already friends, their parents having grown up together. I’ve sometimes experienced the divide in the Ukrainian community between new immigrants and people whose great-grandparents immigrated decades earlier. I see this when I’m at cultural events and observe the new immigrants and third-generation Ukrainians not interacting. They might share the same culture, but their similarities ended there, and they would often try to exclude each other with the language they spoke. It’s as though each group was saying, “You’re Ukrainian, but not the same way I’m Ukrainian.” I think this was part of the reason why my parents never really got involved in the Ukrainian community here like I tried to. My mom would try to volunteer for community events and get told the positions were filled, even though they weren’t.
Sitting in my third-year cultural psychology lecture, I discovered a study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology. It found that in cultural communities, established community members often excluded newer members, even with no racial, educational, occupational, or income differences. Newer members then had difficulty forming relationships and developing attachments to the community. Knowing this, I’m happy I chose to immerse myself in the Ukrainian dance community. It wasn’t easy, and I often felt like I needed to prove myself to the people around me. But it helped me connect with other generations, gave me an opportunity to talk to former dancers and better understand what compels us all to dance. It’s where I’ve made some lifelong friends.
Adagio means slowly, at ease. It’s not a ballet move, rather it informs how a move should be performed. Dance helped me feel more at ease being an immigrant. It brought forward a part of me that was proud of where I came from. It helped take my attention away from what I couldn’t do to what I could.
We have a word in Ukrainian: bereghynya. It doesn’t have a direct translation to English, but it means something like ‘to preserve the memory of our ancestors’. To me it means to value our community and keep our culture alive. Dance gave me back a part of the community I gave up when I moved to Canada. A study published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health found that participants who took part in world dance, usually the dance of their culture, experienced mental health benefits that stemmed from the acceptance and support they experienced in the community. This resonated with me because when I began Ukrainian dancing I found an outlet and friends I could relate to.
Ukrainian dance also brought me and my family closer. My younger sister, who was born two years after we arrived, followed in my footsteps and now dances with Rusalka too. My family would come to all my performances and drove me to every competition. My mom would send videos of us performing to my relatives in Ukraine, and they would share it with their neighbours and friends, proud that I was helping uphold our culture in Canada.
This past summer I travelled back to Ukraine for the first time with my dance group. While most people were excited to get to see the place their ancestors came from, I was nervous. Nervous that I would once again begin questioning who I was. I identify as Ukrainian-Canadian, but I weigh that more equally now. I still strongly identify as Ukrainian, but I also love my Canadian culture and feel proud to call Canada home. Coming back to Ukraine, I was scared the family I had there would think I was an imposter. I was worried my Ukrainian was so flawed now we would even have trouble communicating. I felt like a fraud — a Canadian coming back to be Ukrainian.
But that wasn’t the case. Hearing the language, seeing the familiar features of Slavic people, reading the signs to the stores my mom and I used to go when I was a child, it was a homecoming. When we ordered food or bartered in the bazaars and people needed my help translating, I felt like a bridge between cultures. And it never once occurred to me to make fun of their broken language.
Meeting my family was more emotional than I was prepared for. In that moment, coming off the bus that had been travelling for four hours, and seeing my baba, aunts, uncles, and cousin waiting for me, I had a glimpse of all the things I missed there. I hardly knew my cousin. An hour for lunch was not enough time to catch up on two decades, but thankfully with social media, we now have a chance to keep in touch more frequently.
Coming back to the place that was once your home and barely remembering it isn’t easy. How do you forget a place that was once all you knew? I know I’ll never stop being an immigrant. I’ve learned to make room in my heart for my new home. I’ve made new memories and joined new communities. I’ve stayed true to my culture and show it off with pride. And I welcome new immigrants too. Rusalka’s current artistic director is doing exactly what my dad did for our family all those years ago. He moved to Canada, leaving his wife and children in Ukraine, to help build a foundation for them to someday soon come over and experience Canada as a home. Ukrainian dance is what brought him here.
The dance floor we practice on might be in Canada, but we take that dance floor and bring it to the world. When I was posed in that final show on our dance tour of Ukraine, breathing in the applause and cheers of the crowd, I wasn’t crying out of sadness. I was crying because I had a realization: my identity and my culture are not tied to a physical place. I didn’t need to be in Ukraine to feel Ukrainian. I carried my culture with me in my heart, and in my love for dance. I could be anywhere in the world and that would still be true.