Dancing in Echoes

Last weekend we went to the Museum of Science and Industry where my oldest daughter performed with her Ukrainian folk dance group as part of the Christmas Around the World celebration.

If you’ve never seen the exhibit, 50 trees are decorated by volunteers from Chicago’s ethnic communities to represent their various cultures and holiday traditions. The Ukrainian Christmas tree was decorated with embroidery-adorned ornaments and sparkling spider webs, inspired by the Ukrainian legend of the spider web.

(Spiders have long been important characters in Ukrainian folklore, but the incorporation of the Christmas Tree into Ukrainian celebrations is a fairly recent one. It’s likely that the tradition came to Ukraine from Germany in the 19th century.)

According to the legend, a poor Ukrainian widow and her children had nothing with which to decorate their Christmas tree. After they went to bed, a spider (a “pavuk” in Ukrainian) took pity on them and spent the night spinning her web all around the tree. When the children awoke, they saw the beautiful web on the tree, and as the first rays of the sun touched the spider’s web, it turned to gold and silver. The family never had to worry about money again.

We sat in the front row, listening first to the Ukrainian Children’s Choir, whose performance was wonderful. Ukrainian music and songs always grab hold of my heart. Traversing time and space, music is so powerful. Along with other types of art, it gives us an experience of tradition, communicating the depths of culture, identity, and memory.

After the choir, my daughter’s group performed “the Hopak,” often referred to as the National Dance of Ukraine. I watched her the entire time, aware of  the moments when her nervous smile dropped for a second as she concentrated. When she dances at home, it’s with such joy and abandon. This was a different experience, careful and almost solemn.

Watching her, I remembered that feeling, being up on stage with my fellow Ukrainian dancers. I loved to dance. I still do, although my dancing is usually relegated to my living room or occasional dance floor. It’s a different thing to dance the choreographed steps, even when they are so familiar that they are almost muscle memory.

Dancing in an ensemble is like reciting a famous poem. There is the knowledge that what you do carries weight, each step like a word in a prayer. You are part of a group, but also part of a tradition. Proud and nostalgic, I watched my daughter dance familiar steps to familiar music. So interesting when time folds up on itself, and our children walk in the echoes of our footsteps.