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The Alberta Story: Ukrainian Shumka Dancers

Back in college, the hardest class I ever took was not Econ 110 or Statistics 100 or Russian Literature 440.

No—the hardest class I ever took was an elective gym class: Ukrainian Folk Dancing.

I took the class on a whim—I have no dance experience or talent, nor do I have an ounce of Ukrainian blood coursing through my veins. I just needed the gym credit and the class fit my schedule. I thought it would be an easy A.

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Ukrainian folk dance involves some serious acrobatic feats, like this jump by one of the Shumka Dancers. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

But now, easy is not a word I would ever associate with Ukrainian folk dancing. Knowing what I know now about Ukrainian dance, I would never have pitted myself in the ranks of those with the strength and agility and sheer energy required to perform the leaps and feats in dances inspired by the antics of competing cossacks. Still, I had fun, which is the whole point of college (isn’t it?) and I learned something new about a culture and a country that I would grow to know quite well over the years.

Ukraine holds a special place in my heart—I ended up living there for several years, and then wrote a guidebook to the country. Traveling in Alberta has landed me in the heart of one of the largest Ukrainian communities in the world, and I was thrilled to discover Edmonton’s homegrown dance company, the Shumka Dancers.

Watching the dancers’ evening rehearsal was a beautiful moment that began with a measured warm-up and then slowly heated up into a well-choreographed frenzy. The women glided through formations and spun around laughing, the men soared into the air with swirls and back flips and physical feats that would rival any of the best acrobatic troupes. And best of all? The dancers were having fun. Though they were definitely working and sweating their way through a demanding routine, I could tell that every single one of them was there because they enjoyed it.

Outside, it was a windy night in northern Alberta, thousands of miles away from Ukraine and its colorful culture, but inside the studio, with its dance barres and stereo music and leather slippers, I witnessed the whirlwind of 21st century Canadian dance—a tableau of poise and motion, like some kind of happy ritual, where every step sounds like a whisper from the old country.

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A dancer flies through the air as part of the traditional Ukrainian “Hopak”. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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