Ukrainian dance troupe in the US is fighting misinformation, one high kick at a time
After a pandemic hiatus, the Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble is a little rusty.
A few times a week, about two dozen semi-professional dancers perform choreography in the basement of the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in suburban Philadelphia.
In their ranks are engineers, designers and students, united by a common heritage. The one who is now under attack.
“[Russia is] trying to rewrite our history and it’s time for us to say ‘no’. We fight back,” said dancer Maria Molyashcha.
An estimated 57,000 Ukrainian-born people and their descendants live in the Philadelphia area, making it the second-largest Ukrainian community in the United States, according to census data.
Since the Russian invasion, this diaspora has shifted into high gear: collecting donations, lobbying the federal government to send arms, and educating an American public suddenly focused on their homeland.
The Ensemble, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, sees its role in the fight against Russian aggression as diplomacy through dance, teaching American audiences about Ukrainian history and culture.
Choreographer and executive director Taras Lewyckyj, 59, has been studying Ukrainian dance since he was around 4 years old.
“It’s a very catchy way to dance. It’s a bit like breakdancing,” he said, particularly hopak, a folk dance thought to have evolved from combat moves performed by the Cossacks.
Born in Philadelphia to Ukrainian parents, Lewyckyj grew up speaking Ukrainian and studying the history and culture of his ancestral homeland.
“I have two sisters and a brother. If dad came home and we spoke English, we should write down what he heard [in Ukrainian] 50 times on a sheet of paper,” he said.
While he used to chafe at such strict rules, Lewyckyj has come to see the Ukrainian American community as a “safe” for a unique culture that has been under attack for centuries.
“My father’s father was shot in front of the family,” said Lewyckyj, targeted for promoting Ukrainian language and culture, seen as a threat to Soviet control. He sees the same kind of purge happening in Ukraine now, following Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine and Russia are “one people”.
Some members of the troupe were born in Ukraine themselves, so the war feels even more personal.
Dancer Khristina Maria Babiychuk, a 27-year-old engineer from western Ukraine moved to the United States as a teenager. “After that [war] started, we hardly get any real sleep,” she said.
His mother recently returned to Ukraine, bringing military supplies with her. “For three people, they had about 90 suitcases for body armor and helmets, because that’s something that can’t be shipped,” Babiychuk said. His grandfather and uncle still live in Ukraine.
In Philadelphia, Ukrainian and Russian immigrants share many of the same spaces. Dancers described family members’ tense moments at work and heard slurs against Ukrainian independence.
“Even here in the United States, when people have access to all streams of information, people still choose to believe [Russian propaganda]”, said dancer Dariya Medynska.
She said the Ensemble hopes to counter misinformation by showing Ukraine in a positive light.
“We are here, it’s not like we are fighting on the front line, but we are fighting,” Medynska said.
This year’s choreography also highlights the subversive side of Ukrainian dance. Many pieces in the band’s repertoire involve characters acting out a story that appears to be about one thing, but is actually about Russian oppression during the Tsarist or Communist era.
“It’s really great to put them on right now, to show the chronic nature of this cultural identity theft,” Lewyckyj said.
A few weeks later, the Voloshky Dance Ensemble prepared to perform at an international spring festival, held at a local high school. Hundreds of people walked around the gymnasium or sat in front of the stage on folding chairs.
The Voloshky dancers gathered in the locker room early, smoking their costumes and practicing their moves.
When it was their turn, the Ensemble began with a few lighter pieces, welcoming the audience and honoring spring. Next, Lewyckyj presented a political satire called The Puppet Dance.
In this one, a dancer wearing a Russian fur cap tries to come between a Ukrainian couple. It ends in kicks to the behind and the Russian rolls over.
“We can only hope for happy endings like that. And you can probably understand why this dance was banned in the Soviet Union,” Lewyckyj told the audience.
For a finale, the group still performs the hopak, with its acrobatic movements inspired by fights. A man did an airborne split. Another turned his head.
This time the show ended with a song that has become the battle cry for an independent Ukraine.
Lewyckyj shouted in Ukrainian: “Glory to Ukraine!”
The crowd responded, “Glory to the heroes!”
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