“I can’t, I have dance” is what I’ll likely say if you ask me whether I’m available to do something on a Friday or Sunday night, in any season. I’ve been Ukrainian dancing since I was five years old, and I plan to keep dancing until I’m in my 100s and my legs no longer function. Even then, I’ll probably wiggle to the beat in my wheelchair, which will be beautifully decorated with flowers and ribbons.
For me, Ukrainian dance kills three birds with one stone. It meets my need for community (Svitanok is like family), artistic fulfillment (dance is highly creative) and exercise (especially cardio!) I also get my fill of being on stage. Our group performs locally at private functions within the Ukrainian community, at weddings and galas, and at public events.
In layman’s terms, I would describe Ukrainian dance as a lot of jumping and turning to pretty music. Unlike other types of folk dance, it has been adapted for the stage. All the regions of Ukraine, such as Poltava, Zakarpattia and Bukovyna, have their own style of dance. Choreographers use the characteristic steps of the region to produce a unique dance. They also create character dances that may or may not be attached to a particular region. For example, I’ve been in dances where we’ve made bread, fixed shoes, looked after an irritable horse or played musical chairs. All the best ensembles (such as Shumka and Cheremosh in Edmonton, Syzokryli in New York City, and Virsky in Ukraine) include ballet training as part of their rehearsal process, since ballet is a key component of Ukrainian dance technique. I provided a more detailed description of the art form when I was a guest on the Ottawhat podcast back in November 2015.
Our group performs at Malanka, a party held in mid-January to celebrate the Orthodox New Year. After the show, we spend the night dancing polkas and waltzes, and grooving to whatever else the band plays. Close to midnight, we always dance a kolomeyka, a North American-Ukrainian tradition. We all form a circle on the dance floor and take turns showing off our tricks, spins and lifts in the middle. (Because I love him, here’s Rick Mercer again with a segment on Malanka in Saskatchewan.)
Someone posted a video on YouTube of the kolomeyka at Malanka 2016. Our contributions to the dance are always spontaneous (it’s part of the tradition!), and I get a real kick out of watching us scramble to get organized.
In late May or early June, the Ottawa School of Ukrainian Dance and Svitanok put on a concert at a local theatre. All the classes in the school perform the dances they’ve been working on all year, and Svitanok performs old and new choreography. The concert is a tremendous amount of work, but is richly rewarding for all those involved.
The Capital Ukrainian Festival is held in Ottawa in late July. Svitanok performs several times throughout the weekend of the festival. For the 2016 edition, the Svitanok ladies and the older Ottawa School of Ukrainian Dance students participated in a fashion show, where we showcased vinoks (flower crowns) designed by Nataliya Laptyeva. It was an incredible chance for us to perform in a different capacity, and we were honoured to display the artist’s work.
Professional photographers took some amazing shots of our group before and during the show. I particularly love the photo of Solomiya, me and Julie standing on the stairs leading up to the stage. I’m surprised I look so zen. I remember being really nervous at that moment!
The vinok fashion show was choreographed by Kateryna Shepertycka, one of Svitanok’s founders and co-directors. The theme of the show was Kupala Night, a mid-summer celebration in Ukraine. I make my grand entrance at 4:56 of this clip:
When we’re not on stage, we spend our time at the festival eating copious amounts of verenyky and watching other dance groups perform. On the Saturday night, there’s a zabava (party) featuring a live band, and we dance up a storm.