UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — For two weeks, the dancers of the Hromovytsia Ukrainian Dance Ensemble from Chicago watched in horror as their home country was besieged by Russian troops.
Based at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Ukrainian Village, the dance group has performed in Chicago and around the world for 40 years. The team also runs a dance school to teach Ukrainian folk dances to local children.
Now they’re taking some of those lessons to kids in their homes, offering virtual lessons to children in Kyiv.
It was “an opportunity we can’t refuse,” said dancer Nastya Lototska. “These children are our responsibility, just as they are to their parents at home. Anything we can do, if it makes them forget their unfortunate reality right now, we’ll try to do it. »
Many dancers have direct ties to Ukraine and were in close contact with family members during the Russian invasion. The war left the dancers wondering what they could do for Ukraine while living thousands of miles away.
“The general feeling for all of us here is that we feel helpless,” said Melanie Glubisz, a second-generation Ukrainian American and dancer in the group. “We are literally watching innocent people in an unprovoked war being slaughtered for no reason.”
Last week, the group partnered with the shipping company Meest-Karpaty to establish a collection point for humanitarian supplies and donations to be sent to Ukrainian refugees and soldiers.
Then a member of the community approached the ensemble to offer dance lessons. The group organizes classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, when it is early evening in Kyiv.
“That’s what we do here for our children. We owe Ukrainian children exactly that and more. That’s why we decided to do it. We have the capacity,” Lototska said.
On Wednesday morning, Lototska was joined by Glubisz and Tania Kruopas, who also teach at the dance group’s sister school on the second floor of the cultural center.
The dancers gathered in front of a flat-screen TV and a Zoom-connected video camera, which they used to hold virtual classes during the pandemic.
At 9:30 a.m., children from Kiev began to appear on the screen. Lototska said eight to 20 students aged 6 to 10 attend each class.
“Nastia has been our leader here, running the classes, and the rest of us just step in to help lift spirits with her and also be there for the kids. We therefore intervene where everyone can. It must happen. It’s the least anyone can do from here,” Glubisz said.
After greeting each student by name, the dancers began a series of stretches, giving instructions in Ukrainian and pausing to answer questions. They then started teaching the steps of a Ukrainian folk dance, according to Lototska, who hails from the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
The ultimate goal is to get the children “out of the ground, to keep them from hiding in basements, not having a chance to get out because they could potentially be, God forbid, killed,” he said. said Lototska. “I don’t even know what these parents are doing to vent their energy. They have been locked up at home for two weeks now. So it’s as simple as that. »
For the children who attend, the dance class is a 45-minute respite from the war. And for dancers, classes have become an intensely personal priority.
“Just touching a child’s heart and giving it a little smile for a day is enough to make it feel a little better,” Glubisz said.
Lototska and Glubisz have extended family living in Ukraine, and their lives have been turned upside down since the invasion of Russia in late February.
Lototska’s male cousins have been recruited by the Ukrainian military and are waiting to defend western Ukraine if Russia continues its invasion, she said.
Glubisz’s great-uncle is stuck in Kiev. He had an amputation, so he couldn’t leave his apartment building, Glubisz said. His cousins also had to stay in town to care for him, she said.
“They have no way to get him out. So my two cousins stayed with him. One of them, she has her 11-year-old daughter who just had surgery two weeks ago, so they’re recovering too. It’s been touch and go,” Glubisz said. “The morale drops, but even then every time we talk over there they say, ‘We’re going to beat this. We’re going to win.
Lototska said she was inundated with supplies and inquiries from across the country from people willing to donate medical equipment or money. The collection will end for now on Sunday. Supplies can still be dropped off at the Ukrainian Cultural Center until then.
“We’ve been overwhelmed and touched by all the generosity and donations, so we just need a bit of time to catch up,” Lototska said.
Dance classes will continue indefinitely, Lototska said. As the war drags on, she and Glubisz hope the suffering of the Ukrainian people, especially children, will remain in the spotlight, they said.
“We just want to remind people that at the end of it all, innocent children are involved. And if it were our American children, we would expect the world to do the exact same thing,” Lototska said. “That’s why we’re going to keep doing it until something changes there. And we’re not just going to let our flame go out, because we can’t. Because if we end this, no one else will care.
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