I had my first taste of Ukrainian dance when I was around 3 or 4 years old. On Saturdays after a day of Ukrainian school I took my 80s haircut and my Jiffies to the ‘club’ upstairs for ‘tantsi’ (dancing). Our teacher, pani Zalyetska had a walking stick and chain-smoked. She was generous with her hugs and we loved her. After some basic Ukrainian steps we always ended the class by spinning around till we couldn’t see. It was the best.     

Later my teachers were a husband and wife team complete with an accordion. I really took to tantsi. So much so that I began dancing with the older kids as well as with my own age group. Over the years I learnt dances from the different regions of Ukraine. My favourite style was hytsul from the Carpathian mountains with its pom-pom laden headdress and uniquely folky costume.

Eventually Saturdays were taken over by ballet and jazz classes and sadly Ukrainian school dropped off my schedule. I got very serious with ballet and left school at 15 to train at a full-time ballet school in Melbourne. I went on to dance with the Vienna State Opera Ballet Company and performed Swan Lake many times. A highlight was when Ukrainian dancer Vladimir Malakhov danced the lead role of Siegfried. 

Cut to 15 years later. I hadn’t really danced in all that time and got talking to a now fellow Lehenda dancer at a Ukrainian function. She mentioned that she was attending adult Ukrainian dance classes. For a long time I’d been thinking it would be lovely to get back into tantsi and here was my chance. I joined the class and after 9 months joined the company for Kazka. 

It’s been an absolute joy dancing with Lehenda. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed performing and learning choreography. In the last five months I’ve learnt seven dances, performed twelve times and discovered my inner fox. It’s been wonderful dancing with a cast of vibrant Ukrainians of all ages, and since being on tour I’ve discovered their quirky personalities. 

It’s been a real kick dancing in front of such supportive, vocal Ukrainian audiences on the other side of the world throughout the Kazka tour. But the highlight for me was performing at the Soyuzivka Festival in upstate New York. It was simply magical. Now that the tour is over I can’t wait for the next one. 

Maria Zhdanko