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



MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian ex-patriots and Ukrainian Americans have mobilized to fundraise, to lobby for aid and to educate Americans now focused on their homeland. NPR’s Laura Benshoff tells us about one group outside of Philadelphia that is spreading Ukrainian culture through dance.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: The Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble is a little bit rusty.

TARAS LEWYCKYJ: One, two, three, four, five…

BENSHOFF: After two years without a performance due to the pandemic, choreographer Taras Lewyckyj is putting about 20 semi-professional dancers through their paces in the basement of a Ukrainian cultural center.

LEWYCKYJ: Two, three, four. And one…

BENSHOFF: The greater Philadelphia area is home to the second largest Ukrainian diaspora community in the country. Lewyckyj and many of the dancers grew up doing what amounts to Ukrainian cultural immersion here, with Ukrainian language and history lessons, Ukrainian Boy Scouts and, of course, Ukrainian dancing.

LEWYCKYJ: I started dancing probably when I was 4 because it’s a very catchy way of dancing. It’s kind of like break dancing.

Boys, let’s see this.

What I didn’t realize at the time, though, when that was happening was that it was also a way to maintain your culture.

BENSHOFF: He says Ukrainians in the US work so hard to protect their traditions because many had family members who were killed for defending those traditions in Ukraine. His grandfather was one of them. Some in the troop came more recently, so the war feels even more personal. Dancer Khristina Maria Babiychuk, a 27-year-old engineer originally from western Ukraine, moved to the US as a teenager. Her mom recently went back to Ukraine with supplies and to check on her grandfather.

KHRISTINA MARIA BABIYCHUK: She got, like, I don’t know how many suitcase. She got – like, for three people, they had, like, 90 suitcases for, like, these bulletproof vests and helmets because this is something that cannot be shipped.

BENSHOFF: The Ukrainian community here also coexists with a Russian one, where opinions on the war vary. Dariya Medinska says part of what the dancers hope they can do is counter disinformation they hear by showing Ukraine in a positive light.

DARIYA MEDYNSKA: It’s good to have this kind of fresh breath of air where we’re still letting people know it’s out there, but in a different way. So it’s been refreshing to be able to bring positivity into all of this.

BENSHOFF: And, she says, it’s good for the dancers, too, as they struggle with so much news of the war. There’s also a subversive element to Ukrainian dancing. Dancer Gregory Fat says many of the pieces involve characters acting out a story that seems to be about one thing but is really about oppression by neighbors like Russia.

GREGORY FAT: You know, in the USSR, still today in Russia, you know, the propaganda, there’s a lot of crackdown of what they can and can’t say. So Ukrainian dancing actually was a way to storytell in the villages.

BENSHOFF: After a couple more weeks of practicing, the Voloshky Dance Ensemble is ready to perform at an international spring festival. Lewyckyj stands before the crowd of at least 200 and introduces one such tongue-in-cheek piece.

LEWYCKYJ: This is called The Puppet Dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENSHOFF: In it, a dancer dressed in a Ukrainian fur hat tries to come between a Ukrainian couple. It ends with them kicking him in the behind and the Russian tumbling over.

LEWYCKYJ: We can only hope for a happy ending like that, and you can probably see why that dance was banned from the Soviet Union.

BENSHOFF: The ensemble always finishes on a dance called the hopak. It’s full of acrobatic moves inspired by fighting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENSHOFF: There are airborne splits. One man spins on his head. Another does a one-handed back handspring. Lewyckyj calls out glory to Ukraine.

LEWYCKYJ: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LEWYCKYJ: Thank you very much. Pray for Ukraine.

BENSHOFF: The crowd responds, glory to the heroes. Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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