UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — For the past two weeks, dancers with the Hromovytsia Ukrainian Dance Ensemble of Chicago have watched in horror as their home country is 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 crew also runs a dance school to teach Ukrainian folk dances to local kids.
Now, they’re beaming some of those lessons to children back home, offering virtual classes to kids in Kyiv.
It was “an opportunity that we can’t turn down,” dancer Nastia Lototska said. “These kids are our responsibility just like they are of their parents back home. Anything that we can do, if it’s getting their minds off of what’s their unfortunate reality right now, we’re going to try to do it.”
Many of the dancers have direct ties to Ukraine and have been in close contact with family members during the Russian invasion. The war has left the dancers asking themselves what they can do for Ukraine while living thousands of miles away.
“The overarching feeling for all of us here is that we feel helpless,” said Melanie Glubisz, a second-generation Ukrainian American and dancer with the group. “We are literally watching innocent people in an unprovoked war just get slaughtered and for no reason.”
Last week, the group partnered with shipping company Meest-Karpaty to establish a collection drop-off point for humanitarian supplies and donations to send to Ukrainian refugees and soldiers.
Then a community member approached the ensemble about offering dance classes. The group holds classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, when it’s early evening in Kyiv.
“That’s what we do here for our kids. We owe the kids in Ukraine exactly that and more. So that’s why we decided to do it. We have the capability,” 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 flatscreen TV and video camera connected to Zoom, which they used to hold virtual classes during the pandemic.
At 9:30 a.m., kids from Kyiv started popping up on the screen. Lototska said eight to 20 students ages 6-10 participate in each class.
“Nastia has been our leader here, conducting the classes, and the rest of us are jumping in just to help build morale with her and also be there for the kids. So we’re jumping in wherever anybody can. It has to happen. It’s the least anybody can do from here,” Glubisz said.
After greeting each student by name, the dancers began a series of stretches, issuing directions in Ukrainian and stopping to answer questions. They then started teaching the steps of a Ukrainian folk dance Lototska said originates from the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
The ultimate goal is to get the kids “off of the floor, get them up from hiding in basements, from not having the ability to go outside because they might be potentially, God forbid, killed,” Lototska said. “I don’t even know what these parents are doing to get their energy out. They’re cooped up in their home for now two weeks. So it’s as simple as that.”
For the children who attend, the dance class is a 45-minute reprieve from the war. And for the dancers, the classes have become an intensely personal priority.
“To even touch the heart of one child and give them one little tiny smile for a day is enough to feel just slightly better,” Glubisz said.
Lototska and Glubisz have extended family living in Ukraine, and their lives have been upended since Russia invaded in late February.
Lototska’s male cousins have been drafted by the Ukrainian Army and are waiting to defend western Ukraine if Russia continues its invasion, she said.
Glubisz’s great-uncle is stuck in Kyiv. He has had amputations, so he’s been unable to leave his apartment building, Glubisz said. Her cousins also have had to stay in the city to care for him, she said.
“They have no way to get him out. And 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, also. It’s been touch and go,” Glubisz said. “Morale is getting lower, but even then, every time that we talk there, they’re saying, ‘We’re going to beat this. We’re going to win.'”
Lototska said they’ve been inundated with supplies and inquiries from around the country from people eager to donate medical equipment or money. The collection will wrap up for now on Sunday. Supplies can still be dropped off at the Ukrainian Cultural Center until then.
“We’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by all the generosity and donations, so we just kind of need some time to catch up,” Lototska said.
The dance classes will go on indefinitely, Lototska said. As the war drags on, she and Glubisz hope the suffering of the Ukrainian people, especially children, remains in the spotlight, they said.
“We just want to remind people that at the end of it all, innocent kids are involved. And if it were our American kids, we would expect the world to do the exact same” support, Lototska said. “That’s why we’re going to continue doing it until something changes over there. And we’re not going to just let our flame burn out, because we can’t. Because if we end this, nobody else will pay attention anymore.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: