For these dancers, defending Ukraine means sharing its culture: NPR

Dariya Medynska reunites with other members of the Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky before the International Spring Festival at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

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Dariya Medynska reunites with other members of the Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky before the International Spring Festival at North Penn High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Rachel Wisniewski for NPR

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 the choreography in the basement of the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Among their ranks are engineers, designers and students, united by a common heritage. One who is now under attack.

“[Russia is] trying to rewrite our history and it’s our time to say “no”. We are fighting, ”said dancer Maria Molyashcha.

Members of the Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky rehearse at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Center in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

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An estimated 57,000 Ukrainian-born people and their descendants call the Philadelphia area home, making it the second largest Ukrainian community in the United States, according to census data.

Since the Russian invasion, this diaspora has taken over: collecting donations, lobbying the federal government to send weapons, and educating an American public suddenly focused on their homeland.

The Ensemble, which turns 50 this year, sees its role in fighting Russian aggression as diplomacy through dance, teaching the US public about Ukrainian history and culture.

Choreographer and executive director Taras Lewyckyj, 59, has been studying Ukrainian dance since he was around 4 years old.

Taras Lewyckyj, artistic director of the Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky.

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“It’s a very captivating way to dance. It’s kind of like breakdance,” he said, most notably the hopak, a folk dance that is said to have evolved from fighting moves performed by the Cossacks.

Born in Philadelphia of 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 my father came home and we spoke English, we should write down what he heard [in Ukrainian] 50 times on a piece of paper, “he said.

While he used to get irritated by such strict rules, Lewycky eventually came to see the Ukrainian community in the United States as a “safe deposit box” for a unique culture that has been under attack for centuries.

“My father’s father was shot in front of the family,” said Lewyckyj, who was targeted for the promotion of the Ukrainian language and culture, considered a threat to Soviet control. He sees the same kind of purge going on in Ukraine now, following Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Ukraine and Russia are “one people”.

Some of the crew were born in Ukraine, so the war feels even more personal.

Members of the Voloshky dance ensemble dress up and practice their routine in the locker room at Penn High School.

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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 practically don’t really sleep, “he said.

Her mother recently returned to Ukraine, taking 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. The dancers described the moments of tension of family members at work and listening to anti-Ukrainian independenceist insults.

“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.

He said the Ensemble hopes it can counter disinformation by showing Ukraine in a positive light.

Members of the Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky arrive for their final dance number.

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“We’re here, it’s not like we’re fighting on the front lines, but we’re fighting,” Medynska said.

This year’s choreography also highlights the subversive side of Ukrainian dance. Many pieces in the group’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 period.

“They are really great to wear right now, to show the chronic nature of this cultural identity theft,” said Lewyckyj.

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 gym or sat in front of the stage on folding chairs.

Voloshky dancers gathered early in the changing rooms, smoking their costumes and practicing their moves.

The Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky performs the “puppet dance”, about the Russian occupation (top), as well as the dance of the “broken promises” (bottom).

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When it was their turn, the Ensemble started with some lighter tunes, welcoming the audience and honoring spring. Hence, Lewyckyj introduced a political satire called The Puppet Dance.

In it, a dancer dressed in a Russian fur hat tries to meddle between a Ukrainian couple. She ends up with them kicking him in the back and the Russian falling.

“We can only hope for a happy ending like that. And you can probably understand why that dance was banned by the Soviet Union,” Lewyckyj told the audience.

For the finale, the group always performs the hopak, with its combat-inspired acrobatic moves. One man did an air division. Another turn of the head.

This time around, the show ended with a song that became the rallying cry for an independent Ukraine.

Lewyckyj shouted in Ukrainian: “Glory to Ukraine!”

The crowd replied: “Glory to the heroes!”

The Ukrainian dance ensemble Voloshky performs its latest dance number at the International Spring Festival.

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