As a Ukrainian American on the east coast, I have had the distinct pleasure of really getting to experience, learn about and grow into the culture of my grandparents. Ukrainian Americans in the NJ/NY area have at least a dozen established churches they can attend, there are a multitude of festivals and dances throughout the year to attend across the tri-state area, and a little Ukie child has their choice of which group to learn traditional folk dance with.
I first started Ukrainian dance lessons when I was very young, maybe when I was 8 or 9, and I studied with the legendary Pani Roma Pryma Bohachevsky. She came to my elementary school (my Ukrainian church’s kindergarten – eighth grade school), and we had class once a week, and a performance at the end of the year. By the seventh grade, I was SO. WAY. INTO. UKRAINIAN DANCE. and I asked my mom if I could go away to this dance camp that Pani Roma ran every summer at the Ukrainian resort in upstate New York (near New Paltz, in Ulster county) called Soyuzivka. I would go to camp for the next four years, and every year, it was the hardest, and most awesome two weeks of my life. And for the ensuing six years, when I was no longer a dance camper, I felt a twinge of regret every time August would roll around, and I was not making my pilgrimage to study folk dancing.
But I stopped attending dance camp because the real passion of my life was taking over. The summer of 1998 was when I started preparing for my college auditions. I practiced piano a few hours every single morning, and taking two weeks off to dance just didn’t seem like an option.
A few years later (after successfully getting into college as a music major, and then going and changing my major to English with a journalism minor, haha) I was back at Soyuzivka, during dance camp time of course, and was doing a little practicing in the dining hall. The dance camp accompanist, Ada Helbig, was there, and came over to chat with me. Would I be interested in accompanying ballet classes next year? Why yes, yes I would!
The following summer, in 2001, I came to the New York mountains once again for dance camp. I would be staying for two sessions’ worth of camp, an entire month. It was a life altering experience, with a little bit of trial by fire thrown in. I did not have much preparation or coaching before I took this job. Pani Roma, while she was an excellent teacher, was not so clear in what was expected of me as the accompanist, and since these were pre-Facebook days I don’t even recall if trying to get in touch with Ada for advice even felt like an option. I was handed some music that I was expected to learn – I still have the book, but the task of learning a daunting 15-20 songs in just under two months was something that I at that point in my life just couldn’t do. The first few days of classes were rough, but we hit a groove and I made it through the remaining time, with only one trip to the ER because of such severe pain in my wrist we thought I had possibly broken something. I didn’t end up breaking anything, but I did get a very painful case of a carpel tunnel flare up.
After such an experience, what do you think I did? Switched my major back to music, of course. I dove back into piano playing, and finished school as a music theory major (which I liken to learning how to be a mechanic to help me be a better driving instructor). Though it was a painful and hard experience – and even though I wasn’t really ready as a music professional for it – I grew and learned a lot my summer as a ballet accompanist. It was probably one of the most influential summers of my life.