I grew up in the middle of prairie nowhere. My hometown has 1,500 people and no traffic lights. My first Ukrainian dancing classes were held in the elementary school gym and, Ukrainian dance being wildly popular throughout Alberta, our local dance club was enormous. I remember very little about my earliest years of Ukrainian dancing. I asked my mom how old I was when I began.
“Four,” she said. “And they made you audition.”
“They did not!” I exclaimed. Not only did I have no memory of auditions, but it really just didn’t seem possible. My mom explained, “They stuck you in a room, taught you a few steps, and then decided whether to put you in Pre-Beginner or, you know… Idiot.”
“And was I an idiot?” I asked.
“No,” said my Mom. “No, you were not.”
Further discussion revealed that, while I was no slouch in the dance department, my mom felt she could have used some remedial lessons in How to Be a Dancing Mother. Sewing my first costume, she told me, was a challenge. “The club bought the material for your skirts in bulk and then sold it to us to sew ourselves. There was a lady who held meetings to make sure we were doing it right, but I never was. Eventually I wised up and paid someone else to do it for me.” At four years old, I could have cared less about my dance costume and I wailed like an ambulance when it came time for her to French-braid my hair. What I l-o-o-o-o-ved, however, was the makeup. I have no idea where this originated or why, but for the longest time one did not perform Ukrainian dancing on stage without these crazy little wings drawn out of the corners of one’s eyes. We used to call them “fishtails.”
“Of course, I never got that right, either,” said my mom. “I was a failure of a dancing mother. It’s a wonder you turned out to love it as much as you do.” But she wasn’t a failure at all. And I do love it. Today, at 20 years old, I dance with Edmonton’s Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Company. In the years between my very first costume and now, I have worn scores of skirts, aprons, blouses, boots, and headpieces, the details of which both amaze and amuse (and sometimes annoy) me.
An embroidered blouse is a staple of any Ukrainian dance wardrobe. I have friends whose blouses were once worn by their mothers and embroidered by their grandmothers, whose costumes have generations of family history sewn within them. I’m not entirely sure where my own dancing blouses came from, though my Baba brought this one back for me when she visited Ukraine. We’re not so good at sewing in my family.
The flowery headpiece is called a Vinok. You might be thinking, “How does that stay on your head?” The answer is pain. And bobby pins. But mostly pain. If you stick in a pin and it doesn’t hurt, stick it in again.
Though I don’t feel very nostalgic about my blouses, these boots own an actual piece of my soul. They fit perfectly. I have boots that are too big. (At our last performance, I attempted to remedy this by sticking the soles of my feet to the insides with carpet tape.) I have boots that are too small, too stiff, and give me blisters – but these I can count on no matter what.
Sometimes we wear twirly skirts. The problem with this is that you have to be careful what you wear underneath them. Usually we wear a short, white slip, but this particular costume comes with bloomers. I love them. Oh, how I love them.
Ukrainian dancing has been a part of my life for so long that I have always accepted most of its details without question. I wear red boots to rehearsal and pin flowers to my hair and it’s as natural as brushing my teeth – and when I consider it, I treat most of my day-to-day fashion the same way. If I don’t feel the need to question it, nobody else will feel the need to question it either. And if they do, I won’t care.
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