Rodovid Academy of Ukrainian Dance

Six months ago, a mysterious Instagram and Facebook account started popping up on my feed: Rodovid Academy of Ukrainian Dance.

“Do you want to be a better Ukrainian dancer?”

“Do you want to take your dance career to the next level?”

“Do you want to improve your dance lexicon?”

Yes, yes, and yes.

Not knowing at all what this was about, I was intrigued and anxiously waited until April 1, when all was to be revealed: Lana Niland, Shannon Gabrush, and Andriy Demeshchuk teamed up to start the Rodovid Academy of Ukrainian Dance.

For its inaugural year, Rodovid offered a three-day instructor intensive workshop and a week-long dancer workshop in Hepburn, just outside Saskatoon.

Even without much information about it, I knew I wanted to go and that it would be beyond worthwhile, mostly because I knew the team was so talented.

All three are well-respected dancers, choreographers, and instructors. Lana is from Saskatoon and danced with the Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble (PFE), later going on to dance with Virsky in Ukraine. Shannon also danced with PFE and has trained in Ukraine out of the Institute of Ukrainian Folk Dance in Lviv. Andriy, a State Honoured Artist of Ukraine, danced with Virsky for 18 years and has become a bit of a familiar face in Canada’s Ukrainian dance scene as he’s run workshops here over the years.

Besides their impressive dance resumés (which I very, very much summarized), they are great people. I met Lana in Kyiv when I ordered dance shoes through her company Postmark Ukraine. I continued to keep in touch with her while I lived in Ukraine because I wrote a monthly column for What’s On, an English magazine based in Kyiv. Lana is the editor for What’s On. She’s also the editor of Ukrainian Dance World — The Magazine, which I’ve written for as well (you can read a couple articles here and here).

I met Shannon when she was the adjudicator at the Manitoba Ukrainian Dance Festival. I was her scribe for most of the weekend, plus I attended the instructors workshop she and Maksym Zabutnyy, the other adjudicator, hosted. She shared great tips for teaching young dancers and had such a positive energy.

I hadn’t met Andriy (besides being Facebook friends because everyone is Facebook friends) until Rodovid but had heard great things about workshops he’s hosted.

And so, without knowing any other info, besides the workshop leaders and the dates (August 23 to 25), I knew I had to attend. (I even checked in with my sister to make sure it was OK if I wasn’t around for the birth of her child, since her due date happened to be that weekend — thankfully my precious niece came a few days early!)

More than 70 people attended the dancer workshop, and about 30 attended the instructor workshop, which included some dancers who stayed for both.

Rodovid will be a yearly event, offering a “certificate program” for instructors to complete over a few years. Each year the focus will change — for example, this year we focused on beginners, the youngest dancers in a school.

But Rodovid isn’t a one-weekend-a-year type of thing. The idea is to create an online community where you continually have access to resources to help you in your dance instructor journey. (A new Rodovid website is set to launch in the new year.) Plus, the team also plans to offer workshops outside of Saskatchewan.

It’s exciting to see this Ukrainian dance family tree extend its roots across Canada (“rodovid” means family tree in Ukrainian).

I learned lots during the workshop weekend, so it’s difficult to sum it all up, but below are a few main takeaways.

Break it down

The youngest dancers need a strong dance foundation so they can continue to grow, targeting any bad habits before they become ingrained in them. This means breaking things down.

We focused on the “step-by-step” method, where you break one step down into many parts. Of course, this is likely the approach many teachers have — you’re not going to ask a dancer to do a backflip without teaching them the steps to do it — but the way we approached this method at Rodovid was even more broken down than I’ve tried in the past.

For example, to learn pokhid skladniy (1-2-3/stationary bihunets), we started with simple pliés and rises. Next, plié while one foot goes to cou-de-pied, then stretch both legs. Then: step, step, plié and find cou-de-pied. Then the same thing but on a rise. Then you lift up your feet more on the 1-2. And so on, and so on.

You’d do this with your dancers over weeks, making sure the majority of dancers could do the movement before moving on to the next step. (Andriy suggested you move on to the next step when about 70 per cent of the class can do the movement you’re working on.)

To me, it wasn’t as though the Rodovid team was saying the way they broke steps down was exactly what you must do — it was more about getting you to think of ways to make steps simpler, even if they were technically “basic steps” already.

So experiment with what works for your students. See if you can break down a step to a simple movement that you can add on to. You likely won’t see progress at first, but that’s OK. You have all year! And hopefully, many years after that, because you will have inspired the dancer to stick with it.

Make a friend, be a friend

There aren’t many opportunities to meet other Ukrainian dance instructors, especially ones outside of your city. You might say hello in passing at a dance festival (there’s not all that much time for socializing), or maybe you meet at some event through a friend.

But Rodovid was a great way to “force” yourself to meet new people (and meet current Instagram/Facebook friends in person!). It’s important to have a group of people you can turn to to bounce choreography ideas off of, or clarify which region a song is from, or any of the other countless questions that come up. It’s also important for Ukrainian dance and culture in general. We’re all on the same team — the team of celebrating and promoting Ukrainian dance — and meeting, and maybe one day collaborating with, others with your common love for Ukraine will help keep the traditions in Canada alive.

I’m thankful to have met people from all over Canada who Ukrainian dance or instruct, and it’s given me a bit of an understanding — a limited understanding — of dance across the country. Living in Ukraine and becoming friends with friends of friends has introduced me to many fellow dancers and instructors, but sometimes I forget just how many people I’ve met because of opportunities like this, opportunities that not everyone has.

At one point during Rodovid, we went around to introduce ourselves, and afterwards, someone from the prairies went up to someone from British Columbia and said, “So tell me about your group — I didn’t know there was Ukrainian dance beyond the mountains!” People, myself included, can get caught up in the circle of Ukrainians you know, thinking others must know them too. But that’s not the case for everyone, which makes opportunities like Rodovid even more important.

So make friends. Ask your friends for help. Offer help when you can. And continue to inspire.

Overplan

Seventy per cent of teaching happens outside the studio.

That’s just a random stat Andriy gave, but that’s probably a close estimate. You’re in class for just a couple hours a week, if that. But you should be planning — and overplanning — for hours outside class.

We learned different techniques to teach body awareness to young dancers. Courtesy of  Rodovid Academy of Ukrainian Dance.

We learned different techniques to teach body awareness to young dancers. Courtesy of Rodovid Academy of Ukrainian Dance.

One session we had was all about planning for the dance season. This means planning overall goals, plus things to focus on each class, right down to the minute. If you’re more experienced, you might be fine with a less-detailed class plan (perhaps not down to the minute as suggested), but you need to be prepared nonetheless.

Young dancers lose interest in activities if you spend too long on one thing, but if you’re prepared and set aside only a couple minutes for each exercise, which is written on a sheet you can quickly look, you’ll keep their attention the whole time. This also comes in handy when things start going astray, which of course is going to happen when teaching five year olds — that’s part of the fun. But you can still refer back to your lesson plan, getting back on track by doing the exercise at the corresponding time, even if this means skipping over a couple things.

Andriy also suggested to keep a dance diary — after each class, write down how things went, what worked and what didn’t, how students responded, and so on. It will help you plan for the following week, plus for future years.

Speak the language

No, you don’t have to be fluent in Ukrainian to teach Ukrainian dance. But you should use the proper dance step names, no matter the age you teach.

You may get some giggles when they hear it for the first time, but that just gives them even more reason to remember it! Plus, sometimes the translated word describes the movement. If you’re unsure of the Ukrainian words for steps, you can find some resources (Serhij Koroliuk’s Hopak video, Shumka Syllabus, WikiBooks) or you can put your brains together with another instructor, or you can ask a friend, or you can go to workshops like Rodovid.

Respect your students

…and they will respect you.

Be professional. Be creative. Be weird. And be respectful.

Give your dancers your full attention, listen to them, engage with them. It kept coming up over the weekend how you need to help build up the confidence of your dancers, so they feel comfortable dancing not only in class but also on stage. And I think a big part of that comes with showing your respect for them and your trust in them.

In return, they will (hopefully) respect you too. And that just makes for a positive and productive dance environment.

Have fun

That’s all I need to say about this topic.


School’s out for winter

The dates for next year’s workshops are already out!

Instructor intensive (all ages): July 25–26, overnight at Bethany College in Hepburn

Dancer workshop (ages 10+): July 19–24 and August 23–28, overnight at Bethany College in Hepburn

Little Rodovid (ages 6–9): July 27–29, daytime, location TBA

And just a note about the venue, Bethany College — it was the perfect place for a thing like this. We stayed in student residence, one or two people per room, and then used the main college building (gym, cafeteria, classrooms) during the day. AND we were fed super well! With bedtime snacks and all.