Sewing Solidarity and Support For Ukrainian Culture Through Dance

Against a backdrop of war and oppression – today here in Canada, a nation brimming with diversity, the essence of Ukrainian culture thrives. The heart of Ukraine continues beating loudly. It beats in the soul of a dancer, within their passionate steps, and it resonates within the compassionate hearts of two remarkable women determined to bridge the chasm forged by conflict. Here in Canada four time dance mom and the administrator for the Tavria School of Ukrainian Dance Kim Smith places costume orders for dancers- knowing it will be months before they arrive due to the ongoing conflict. Meanwhile in Ukraine, patriot and the owner of PostMark Ukraine, Lana Nyland fills those orders, and connects with artisans in the region to source materials and create amazing costuming. It’s a delicate dance that has evolved over the last two years.

In Saskatchewan traditional Ukrainian dance stands as a beacon of hope. Its appeal is not merely in the powerful steps or vibrant costumes, but in its profound connection to Ukraine itself. The dances tell traditional folk tales tied to regions of the country, and the costumes, meticulously crafted by artisans in the homeland showcase a vibrancy of color, with embroidery boldly falling against pristine white cloth – unmarked by conflict. These articles of clothing are manufactured by skilled Ukrainian artisans in the war torn country, serving as a lifeline for those who depend on their craft for survival.

“With Ukrainian Dancing – we are telling stories and the costumes reflect very specific regions. It’s part of the story telling. We try and hold onto that so you can covey the stories through the costuming alongside the dance steps and routines.” Says Smith. Smith adds that the majority of Tavria’s costumes are sourced from Ukraine sources, not only to stay authentic – but in order to support the makers and the masters.

Year after year, Tavria proudly hosts its annual dance festival, a celebration that allows culture to go beyond distance and adversity, drawing hundreds of dancers from across the prairies. This past weekend, in the heart of Regina, amidst the rolling fields, the festival took place – standing as a testament to resilience, a defiant declaration of cultural continuity in the face of turmoil. From beginners to seasoned performers, each dancer takes took the stage not only to showcase their skill but to honor a legacy that transcends borders. And amidst the chaos of the world outside, within the embrace of the dance, there exists a reminder that even in the darkest of times, the spirit of Ukraine endures.

From all ages, all backgrounds, all levels of expertise – these dancers showed the province their skills. Unbeknownst to many of them – the challenges inherent in outfitting these dancers with authentically Ukrainian Costuming.

“We are ordering 12-15 costumes at a time to ensure that our dancers are able to wear authentic costumes.” Orders used to be able to be placed in the fall to make it here in time for festival season – now they must be ordered at the close of festival season in order to arrive in time.

Kim Smith says there are dancers in the the troupe who have been unable to procure shoes – supplies coming from Ukraine being stalled. Rerouted through Poland. Inspected, and then sent off via boat. the process of acquiring the supplies necessary to dance – hampered by Vladimir Putin’s regime. “I know – that we will have dancers stepping off the stage at the festival – quickly stripping off their shoes and passing them to a dancer waiting in the wings. We just haven’t been able to order footwear the way we used to before the war.”

Often the craftspeople making dance wear in Ukraine are having to do so under the threat of bombardment, or without power. The circumstances these individuals are working under – is nothing short of extraordinary.

“Sometimes they makers are forced to work by candlelight. Their machinery uses power. Power outages mean they can’t use the equipment. Those machines take time to warm up – so even if they get power, half the time is spent warming that machinery up and not being able to get right down to work”. She adds that the makers have to very thoughtful regarding what they choose to work on – as they don’t know when they may have power or how long the power supply they have may last. “They don’t have the luxury of having power 24/7,” adds Smith.

Across an ocean, in the heart of war – in Ukraine – Lana Nyland says that some of the master craftspeople they used to connect with – have gone missing. Individuals who are no longer able to practice their craft. No longer able to sew and stitch leather pieces so valuable for dance. Nyland worried for their safety – knows that many of the masters responsible for making the shoes lived in front line regions which are now occupied. Many of them having fled Ukraine for safer spaces, or suffering a much worse fate likely among the more than 30,000 civilian casualties suffered during the war – as reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as reported in February of this year.

“Here in Ukraine – we know first hand what war is. There are a lot of front line communities and battalions that are taking the charge and doing the defending of the country. The cultural fight is just as important. That is what dance groups across the country of Canada are doing. This fight that Ukraine is facing is not just happening in the country – but is happening world wide.”

In 2022 Nyland had hundreds of orders that were delayed as borders were closed and transport became impossible at the start of the conflict. Those orders were delayed as the people of Ukraine faced a new reality. They were now at war with Russia.

“In February of 2022, I was here in Kiev as Russians started to occupy my city. I wasn’t ready to evacuate, I wasn’t ready to leave. I knew there was more I could do to help.”

In addition to her work with PostMark Ukraine Nyland started a non profit organization with the aim to help the fund is called Ukrainian Patriot. Through the fund they help communities on the front line, and help their defenders do what they have to do.

“In the last two years I really, nd truly understand what it is to do something bigger than myself. In the west we lose that bigger picture sometimes. We are so concerned about the cars we have, the summer houses we have. How many awards did my child win?” Nyland says there is a bigger fight sometimes in the background that we aren’t paying attention to. The conflict in Ukraine being one of those.

“Maybe people don’t know how to get involved. Taking that first step and understanding you have the power to make a difference in someone’s life is an incredible first step.”

Nyland says this causes a ripple effect. And at some point he realized her work wasn’t just helping one person, it was a dozen, and from there another dozen as those people were able to help more.

“Those dozens help others. The ripple continues. Start the ripple. It doesn’t end with you. Your good deed continues, and sometimes that deed continues into hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of good deeds.”

Alongside her work with Postmark, and the Ukrainian Patriot fund – Nyland has taken in a number of animals who have been abandoned on the front lines. The animals were left in homes, and train stations, and now they are part of the Nyland household.

Despite hardships – Nyland pledges to continue helping fight on what she calls the “second line” a line of people who are continuing to fight Russia’s culture war. She is steadfast and will not be leaving the country she says.

“When you step on the soil here it’s different. It’s a different time and place. What is important here is understood a little differently. The pace is slower, feelings run deeper. Our history is saturated with turmoil, joy, and sadness – and despite it all Ukraine continues. It continues to fight today – not just for Ukraine but for the rest of the world as well.”

The fight continues for Lana Nyland and her group of artists in Ukraine long after the lights dim on stages adorned with dancers here in the west. Both – carry love for Ukraine with them – sewing solidarity between them in one fashion or another.

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