Ukraine - Dancers in the War

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Ukraine! Dancers in the War

The War… something that all of us were fearing, something that all of us were hoping would never happen in our lifetime.

It is now a reality. The 40 million people of Ukraine are now finding themselves fighting for their lives, looking for shelters, and are being displaced. Many of these people are our fellow dancers. Here are some of their stories:

Natalia and Olexander Tolmachov, dance teachers, studio owners, competition adjudicators from Mykolayiv. Currently evacuated to Assen, Netherlands:

The war started for our family and all Ukraine on February 24 at 4.30 in the morning. The first explosions were very close to our home and car alarms went o? right away and all the windows in our apartment were shaking. I could not believe the nightmare I was seeing. My heart was literally jumping out of my chest and the clutter in my head was ceaseless. My brain did not want to comprehend the reality. My husband went to get gas at 5.30am and I woke our 7-year- old daughter up and started packing some bags.

Our older son, Danil, who was 17 at that time and danced in Kyiv, called and asked in a shaken voice what was going on, because something just blew up next to him. The explosion was very strong and lots of glass from broken windows was all over the street next to the subway station close to my son’s apartment. In complete shock I told him it’s the war and we love him dearly, no matter what is going to happen next.

When my husband was at the gas station, an airplane flew right above his head and 10-15 minutes later a new set of explosions started very close to us. We ran out of our apartment and got into a long line to the ATM to get some money. The closer we were getting to the ATM, the less money we could get. There was an ambulance station next to our building and they were driving out every single minute with loud sirens. For a moment it seemed like our whole small town was full of these scary noises. We were able to get some money and get some food to bring to my elderly mom, who has trouble walking on her own and would not be able to survive by herself.

No one knew what to do next. Our apartment was on the 8th floor, and it was very scary to go back there. We got our dog and went to my aunt’s place. We spent most of the next five days and nights in the basement of a maternity hospital. We slept on chairs surrounded by women giving birth right before our eyes, under constant bombing.

On the 6th day early in the morning after an air raid alert, we again drove to the shelter. Our neighbor asked us for a ride. She wanted to get to the bus station. I asked her where she was going to go, for they will start bombing soon. She said she was tired of sleeping in the bathtub and didn’t care where to go, just to get away from here. We dropped her o? at the bus station and in that moment, we decided to get out of town as well. We hoped to get together with our son somewhere in western Ukraine. This hope and belief truly helped us at that moment.

In less than 5 minutes, we gathered some documents and necessities and started driving out towards Odessa. That was a great shock! Every checkpoint on our way out of town put me in a state of despair and brought tears to my eyes, but our soldiers were all very nice and respectful, and I am very grateful to them for that. There was lots and lots of tra?c on the road, tires, sand, and a constant fear that the next enemy plane would turn our cars into ash, while I had my 7 year old daughter sleeping by my side. I kept asking myself - why are we getting all this? I don’t remember how long it took us to drive 120 kilometers to Odessa, but it felt like forever. In Odessa we left our car parked next to the train station and went inside.

What we saw there is very hard to describe. It was like a horror movie. Tons of people: elderly, men, women, mothers with young children, pets, cages with birds… People were everywhere. They were standing, sitting, laying down in every single spot of space. We went to the ticket counter and when we asked for tickets to Ternopil we were told to run fast to the shelter as the bombing has started. All our documents, a small bag with necessities and our dog were still in our car. My husband went to get it and my daughter and I went to find shelter. When the air raid was over and we got out of shelter, we learned there is one train to Ternopil that you can buy tickets for and two evacuation trains. If we didn’t make it onto any of them, we would have to spend the night at the train station because the curfew in Odessa began at 5pm.

To this day I don’t know how we managed to make it onto that train. We were begging the train station worker, we were telling her this might be our only chance to meet with our underage son, she saw our little daughter, we were praying to God… but late at night we made it and were standing in a train vestibule! We got an upper berth for our daughter, my husband, our dog, and I. There were 15 people in a train compartment normally suitable for four. People were sitting and standing everywhere together with their pets. All windows were blocked, and all lights were dimmed. Of course, we had a constant fear of the train being bombed during our ride. At 5 o’clock in the morning the next day, we arrived in Ternopil. A volunteer named Natalia met us at the train station. She took us to her place and gave us some tea. For all those days from the beginning of this war we had not been eating and were barely drinking due to the state of shock that we were in. I decided to go to the store to get some food and realized I was simply terrified. Every single loud noise made our daughter ask us if we were being bombed. Natalia gave us a place to stay in her toy store, some toys for our daughter, and some blankets for us. Yes, we were sleeping on the floor, but at that time Ternopil was not being bombed and we were relatively safe. We were extremely worried about our son. He was riding from Kyiv with people we did not really know, and we are very grateful for them that they did not leave our child behind in this war. In the early morning of next day Danil was with us. He arrived during a curfew. Somehow soldiers let their car into the city. Despite having APCs under our window and Territorial Defense Forces checking paperwork, this was our small victory. Our family was together again. Our thoughts were with the friends and relatives that had been left behind, and our two cats that were now with my mom. We had to get going.

The next challenge - getting on the bus from Ternopil to Warsaw. 21 hours on the road. We had left everything behind - our big successful studio Harmoniya, all our students who are a part of our hearts forever, our home, our families and friends, everything we have ever had. We were left with nothing and now have to start from scratch.

I would like to say thank you to Jakub Rybitsky for organizing the pickup and hotel stay for us in Poland. Two days later we travelled to the Netherlands where we are staying now at the De Bonte Wever Hotel. We are completely taken care of and feel safe. We would like to say many thanks to Fred Bijster and his team for taking amazing care of our family and many other Ukrainian dancers! We will be forever grateful! It has been two weeks since we left the war, but all of us still see it in our sleep at night. Our daughter is now afraid of every airplane in the sky. She keeps constantly asking if we are sure there is no war here in Assen. She had been having a happy childhood – she was going to school, doing dance and art, and could never imagine her life could change in this way. Now, we spend most of our days reading news and worrying about our friends and relatives left at home.
The fear for the fate of our country is not becoming smaller. It breaks our souls apart. We all hope to wake up and realize this is just a nightmare and all of this has never happened. Many of our students are now refugees in diferent parts of the world, some of them are here with us in Assen. With those who are still in Ukraine we exchange messages constantly and every day starts with a standard text - How are you? - Still alive! Our car is now helping volunteers get people out of the war zone and get help to the people who decided to stay. We hope it will save some lives, because there is nothing more important than life.

Danil Tolmachov, International Latin dancer, Kyiv. Currently evacuated to Assen, Netherlands.

The war started for me at 5.20 in the morning. I woke up from the phone call. It was my friend telling me the war has started and three bombs were already dropped next to his house. I did not believe him at first and dropped the phone. I honestly thought it was a prank. But two minutes later lying in bed and looking at the window, I saw a red dot in the sky that was slowly moving towards me. The red light filled my room and then I heard an extremely loud sound of an explosion. I got up super fast. All of the cars outside had their alarms going o?. I ran to the next room to wake up my friend and together we sat for 5 minutes without any movement, scared to the point of trembling. We could not comprehend the fact that the war had started and couldn’t understand what to do. I went to my Instagram account and right away saw a message from my mom who was at home in Mykolayiv, saying that they love me and that the war has started. That message was sent an hour before and that was the last time they were online… At that moment I realized I might never see my family again.

Through my time in Kyiv, I had the whole range of emotions - from fear to the point of tears to aggression towards occupants. There were also moments of complete numbness, when all I could think of was that my whole life and all my plans were over now, and all I could do was to stay sheltered. Every day they were saying that this night is going to be hard, and my friends and I knew each night could be our last.

I feel very lucky that our family was able to evacuate. I am very grateful to Fred Bijster for organizing this process and giving us an opportunity to stay at this beautiful hotel with extreme comfort. I would also like to thank Gerrit Wensink for helping us with transportation to Assen. To Katia Zakharo? for all her emotional and physical help through all these days. My Ukrainian teachers, Elena Martynyuk and Roman Kovgan that supported me in Poland, and that organize weekly zoom lectures for all Ukrainian dancers.

On a separate note I am also extremely proud of our Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for being a true world leader, for uniting Ukraine, and giving a great example of bravery. I truly believe in Ukraine. I believe my country is going to win, as good must always prevail. I am grateful for the support of the whole world going on protests. At the same time, I hope European countries understand this war is only the beginning, and I hope for more support to my country to prevent the war of a bigger scale.

Yevgeniy Borushko. International Latin Dancer. Blackpool under 21 Latin Champion. Stayed in Ukraine.

For me, as for many Ukrainians, the war started on February 24 at 5 in the morning. My friend woke me up saying “Zhenya, it seems like everything has started”. I did not believe him. I got up, opened the window, heard a couple of large blasts and realized he was right! For the first day, we were completely lost. I realized this is a real war the moment I was using scotch tape to protect the windows in my apartment, so that during the explosion they would not shatter into tons of tiny pieces. Symbolically, this was the same tape I have been using in UK and Blackpool this year - my lucky tape. That’s how we prepared ourselves for our first night. It seems a bit funny now, but it was that exact moment when I realized it is a real war. That was the point of no return.

Now I am in a safe place in Ukraine. But my mom is in an occupied small town close to Kharkiv, with Russian tanks on the streets, Russian airplanes scaring people. Every time I speak to my mom on the phone, I can hear the fear in her voice and I am afraid for her. My father is now in Kyiv. He is volunteering in one of the bread baking plants there. He truly believes in us and that everything is going to be alright. Many of my friends are from Kharkiv. In this month they have been through so many things I feel extremely lucky to have avoided. I have with me their voice messages from the moment when Kharkiv was bombed by Grads and Russian rockets. When tanks and Russian soldiers were invading it. It is extremely scary to listen to. And it is also extremely scary to think what they have been through sitting in basements.

One month later, I can only say the war is not over. And I wish people would talk about it more and more. I have a feeling everyone got used to the war happening in Ukraine. But that is something to not get used to. This is a real act of terrorism. I have heard that at this point we have 128 children killed and the number is just growing, and I am very afraid for our children.

Not that long ago I started organizing Zoom classes with world top coaches for all Ukrainian dancers and I see it really helps. When you see kids coming to the lecture from the places they stay in, wearing whatever they have, no dance shoes, some have air raid alarms in the background, and they run to the shelter and get back into the lecture it shows how strong they are and how much they want to develop and dance. I was telling these kids, you can lose everything, but no one can take away your favorite things from you. No one can take away your will, your soul, and your bright eyes, and I see it in our kids. That’s my biggest motivation. All our Ukrainian dancers, not just kids have a strong will to develop. They see a bright future. They see themselves competing and winning. That’s what they live by and that’s what they want. I am asking for all possible support from the world dance community. Ukrainian dancers are the strongest ones and the war clearly shows it!

I am currently in one of the Ukrainian villages helping people that gave me food and a place to stay. I have exchanged my dance shoes for rubber boots, and a trophy to a shovel. But I truly believe that there is always a place to be a champion, even in this kind of work…

For United States Amateur Ballroom Champions Oleksander Kalenyuk and Olena Ablitsova the war had started much earlier:

It’s 2014, Donetsk, we are sitting on the plane and getting ready to fly to our first Blackpool. Upon arrival at the airport where we had a connecting flight, we found out that our plane was the last one that left the airport since the shelling had begun, and after we did not return home ... at that moment when we were flying and could not answer our parents, and they see on the news that the airport was hit, we could not even imagine what thoughts our parents had in their heads ... if our plane had been a little later, then perhaps we would not have written this article… but May 24, 2014 we can call the second birthday

There were many situations that we went through and to this day we face them, our relatives and friends are all in Ukraine for whom we are very worried.

Today our parents are still in Ukraine, Olena's mother and little brother (9 years old) and Olena's grandmother were able to evacuate to Europe, all the other members of our families stayed in Ukraine. We really hope that soon the war will be over and we will be able to see and hug them.

(At the time this article was written, Olena’s parents have safely arrived in Germany and she was on her way to meet them.)

Of course, no rescue mission would be possible without so many people willing to help. From day one the Dutch Open Championship organizer Fred Bijster from the Netherlands began working closely with the famous De Bonte Wever hotel in Assen, has been welcoming refugees, providing a warm and cozy place to stay, with full room and board. I have asked Fred what moved him to become involved into this situation. Here is what he has to say:

“Over the years I've met many people with a Slavic identity and learnt a little bit about their culture and history. They deserve respect and have a history of the greatest su?ering you can imagine. Timothy Snyder wrote a book called "The Bloodlands" that illustrates that. It made a deep impression on me and made me aware of the e?ects of authoritarian regimes on normal folk. History also showed me that most people prefer to look the other way. I simply didn't want to do that. On the scale of what is happening, there is not much we can do, but every little bit helps. I'm also deeply impressed by the way the group we have in Assen is dealing with their current situation. Especially how the very young children (around 14-17 years of age) take care of their mothers, focus on their dancing and start to further educate themselves here. I spoke with a young girl, just 17 years of age, who was sitting down on the terrace and was busy learning English on Youtube. She said: "I might need it". This says it all.”

Gerrit Wensink, Dutch Open music director:

When I heard about the war in the Ukraine my thoughts immediately went to the people of the Ukraine and especially to the dancers who visited many times our competition in Assen, the Dutch Open. As a DJ in this tournament I know a lot of dancers and my heart was jumping over when I saw the news about the terrible pictures there. When I heard from Fred Bijster that he would bring the dancers in safety to the Bonte Wever I gave him my full collaboration to organize to get the people there.

I remember my first trip when I picked up a family from the station in Apeldoorn. They came with the train from Berlin. After the pickup we went first to our dancing school to give them

some food, and the possibility to go to a normal toilet, before we tooek the trip for 1 1/2 hours to Assen.

When I delivered the family, a father, mother, son and daughter to the Hotel they were happy to go to sleep because it was in the middle of the night. On my trip back to Apeldoorn I realized that it was also a good and warm feeling to help the family in this way.

I hope the war will over soon and that we never have to face such a demolition again anywhere in the world.

All of us would like to say so many thanks to Jacub Rybitsky from Poland, Michael Petr from Czech and Oregon State, Boyan Bojancyck from Poland, Michael and Yulia Malitowski from Poland, Gerrit Wensink from the Netherlands, Barbara McColl from UK, Donnie and Heidi Burns from USA, Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko from USA, Andra Vaidilaite from Canada and hundreds of dancers and dozens of dance organizations from Europe, Canada and the United States for organizing fundraising, transportation, stay, food service, legal process, and dance lessons and classes for Ukrainian kids.

  • Report by:: Katia Zakharov and Michael Levenkov
  • Photos by:: As marked

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