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Conversations with Katya Denisova

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katya Denisova.

Hi Katya, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I came to Baltimore from St. Petersburg, Russia in 2002 to teach physics in Baltimore City Schools. With a work visa in my pocket, good for three years, I was not sure of what’s ahead. I was confident, however, that I was a good teacher, knew my subject well, and would be able to teach anyone anything.

I was thirsty for adventure, new connections, and new experiences. I also knew that I wanted to dance. I danced all my life and only took a short break in grad school. Russian folk dancing was my passion, my love, my calling.

Six months after coming to Baltimore, I gathered a small group of Russian dance enthusiasts- a few men and women from former Soviet republics who shared the same passion with me. We partnered with Russian folk music orchestras, other dance groups, and by 2004 we built a diverse repertoire of various dances. We started receiving invitations to perform at business events, weddings, community celebrations, and festivals. We gave our dance group the name “Kalinka”, after the most famous Russian folk tune.

With the birth of my son Gosha, I started adding classes for young children. Kalinka started growing: children were bringing friends, classmates, family members. Festive costumes, traveling shows, upbeat folk music pulsating in Eastern European hearts, fun rehearsals: All these attributes were bringing more and more members to my group. We became a family. Here is a snippet of a show ad, written by one of the Kalinka members: “Russian Folk-Dance Ensemble – A big beautiful celebration! Come share it with us! The program includes dances of the peoples of Central Europe and the former Soviet Union: Russian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Belorussian, Finnish, Polish, Hebrew, and Gypsy.

Traditions passed from grandparents to grandchildren; from the great choreographers to the young; the costumes – some are true family heirlooms and some are creations of contemporary designers; music, carefully restored from old tapes and compositions based on familiar tunes. For us, folk dances are more than just a pleasant pastime. They carry our memory, our soul, our joy and pain, our friendship and love – our life!” Diversity and inclusion have been Kalinka’s main foci while promoting and furthering folk dancing of Russia and countries of Eastern and Central Europe in the US. From the grassroots of our group, we have always welcomed dancers and folk-art enthusiasts regardless of their personal connections to dance or Russian culture.

We believe that as folk art is created by people by integrating their ancestral, geographical, cultural, and personal beliefs and cultures, it is the synergy of diverse participants in an art collective that drives the successful work of the group, creates unique and creative ideas, and opens new doors.
Frequent collaborative outreach projects enabled us to create our own living traditions and have an impact on the way Russian traditional culture is experienced in the US.

Rather than sharing our culture on the basis of ethnicity or language (the approach that is limiting and frequently pressured by politics, historical controversy, and cultural stereotypes), we are inclusive of all members of the community who share our passion for furthering folk art. This makes our art form widely spreadable and accessible, greatly lifts its educational value, and leads to the creation of new blended forms of art.

For example, collaborations with theatrical groups pushed us to branch out towards character dancing (choreographies that tell a traditional fable or a story); joint projects with folk groups representing other ethnicities resulted in “Dance for Peace” projects, which are critically needed given the current global political climate. To expand our repertoire, and I started partnering with choreographers and folk-dance groups from different geographical locations in Russia and Eastern Europe. I was also constantly taking folk dance workshops from a variety of experts and regions. This helped my dances greatly vary in style, technique, music, and costuming: This enabled Kalinka to easily integrate with almost any folk culture or dance event and gave us exposure to a variety of audiences.

Most of our performances and outreach activities are the result of our 19 years of engagement with three types of communities: Folk art (dance) organizations across the state and nearby regions, the Russian community of greater Baltimore and DC, and educational and community institutions.
On annual basis we participate (perform and offer hands-on workshops) at the following events:

1) St. Matthew’s Annual Multicultural Festival, Columbia; Chinese Lunar Year’s Gala, Rockville; International Folklore Gala (Hagerstown); National Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, DC); Windmills Festival, Lithuanian Hall, Baltimore; International Cultural Festival, Arlington, VA; DC Travel and Adventure Show, Washington, DC; Around the World Festival, Washington, DC; Christmas Around the World, Miracle City Church, Baltimore, and others.

2) Hillwood Estate and Gardens Spring and Winter Festivals, Washington, DC; Matreshka Festival, Philadelphia, PA; National Heritage Day, Brooklyn, NY; Pushkin Ball, Russian Embassy, Washington, DC; Fall Bazaar, St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Washington, DC; Baltimore Russian Festival, Baltimore, the Silver Archer Competition, Russian Cultural Center, Washington, DC.

Our partnerships with educational institutions include the Department of Modern Languages, UMBC, Catonsville; Office of ESOL, Baltimore County Public Schools; Baltimore International Academy, Baltimore; various schools in Harford County; L’Etoile Ballet Academy, Columbia; and many more.

We recently started partnering with professional Russian folklorists to create virtual and in-person educational materials on the history of traditional costuming and music that were part of the historic dances of Russia.

This work led us to the creation of interactive exhibitions of Russian folk dance and costumes as part of the revitalization project at the Baltimore Slavic Museum.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
Surviving the pandemic of 2020-21 was the most challenging time. I saw no point in meeting with my dancers virtually- folk dance is a social dance, which requires partners, formations, and interaction between participants.

Besides, after the passing of my husband, who died suddenly of a heart attack in March 2019, I had no energy in me to offer much to the world. We coasted, meeting periodically for ‘masked’ rehearsals- literally and figuratively gasping for air. We lost all income as there were no gigs, no events, no performances. As we were waiting for boxes of dance shoes to get shipped from Russia (during COVID, borders were closed and our dance boots and shoes sat in customs for 13 months), kids’ feet grew and my teenage dancers had nothing to wear on stage.

We shrank in membership: From 55 before the pandemic to about 17 after. It was clear that in order to keep the group going I had to come up with a new creative approach to attract new dancers. Hence, my most recent move to open a second location of Kalinka studios: Since 2005 we were practicing in Pikesville, MD, but over the years the Russian-speaking population in North-West Baltimore was depleting: more and more families were moving closer to Washington, DC.

In September 2021, I welcomed new groups of students in the building of the Russian Ballet Academy, Columbia, MD. I was happily surprised to see that Kalinka membership doubled in a matter of two weeks: Boys and girls, ages 6-16 enrolled in classes and are now working on their very first performance at the National Slavic Museum (Fells Point, Baltimore) on December 5th.

The ongoing personal struggle has been balancing single motherhood, a full-time job in education, and a hobby. I am grateful for friends and for the larger Kalinka community for never-ending support, patience, and compassion. They are the reason Kalinka continues to thrive.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Kalinka Dance Ensemble is one of few Russian traditional dance groups in the United States. Authentic Russian folk dance was practiced by peasants all around Russia for centuries. Choreographed forms of ritualized folk art were present even in pre-Christian times. The process of recording oral folkloric tradition during ethnographic expeditions began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These records were preserved in regions separated from large cities where industrialization and urbanization struggled to take hold. Russian folk dance was performed during evening downtime after work and during festivities. Each region has its own dances with its own specificities and special performance rules. Who could dance, when and how was strictly determined and socially agreed upon, and the interaction between dancers was especially meaningful. The Soviet government did not support, and even prohibited, elements of authentic Russian culture such as musical and dance folklore, traditional dress, holiday traditions, customs, superstitions, oral stories, and the like.

Instead, new concepts, grounded in the traditions of classical ballet, were substituted for these authentic elements, and therefore the folk art of dance was, sadly, nearly forgotten. Refracted through the decades of merging of various dance styles, political propaganda, changes of regimes Russian folk dance arrived in the US with immigrants. Hence, this form of folk art did not freeze in time, did not disappear. It got integrated into the folk-dance landscape of the US via Kalinka’s powerful outreach and ongoing collaboration with local artists and folklorists.

Kalinka has become a Russian cultural hub for the local community. Outside of performances at cultural festivals, performing arts projects, dance competitions, and community events, dancers, ages 4-45, run educational programs in schools and universities, community centers, churches, senior centers, etc. Our group collaborates with Russian, American, and international folklorists to study and showcase Russian traditional dance, music, instruments, costuming, and storytelling.

These collaborative outreach initiatives are driven and run by Kalinka members and their families.
Events hosted by Kalinka (sewing parties, fundraising lunches, children’s festivities, and music events) become opportunities for speakers of Russian and other Eastern European languages to meet and become a part of a support network within the immigrant community. In the post-COVID pandemic environment, these events have become survival mechanisms for many, as they enable the sense of belonging, the sense of community for those of us who left families back in Eastern Europe, but brought and maintained our heritage, our roots.

For our active involvement ongoing work on furthering and disseminating Russian culture in the US, Kalinka has received several awards, including:

• Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots of the USA (2018): “For Population of Russian Heritage in the USA,”
• Silver Archer USA (2019) “For Expanding Russian-American Cultural Ties in the US”.
• Russian Cultural Center (2020) “For the Development of Russian-American Cultural Relationships”.
• Maryland State Arts Council (2020). Creativity Award.
• Maryland State Arts Council (2021). Creativity Award.

Can you talk to us a bit about the role of luck?
I am not sure I believe in luck. I believe in hard work and my ability to attract the right people, ideas, and synergies. When you do what you love, when it feeds your soul, you radiate joy and pour positive energies into people and places. There is no competition in growing a folk-dance company. Folk art, by definition, belongs to people.

It is not luck that brings them together- it is the desire to preserve cultural roots, to remember and enjoy who you are. Folk dancing is an emotional and physical outlet for me and people who join me in my hobby. Not by luck, but by the principles this county operates on, small creative collectives like Kalinka are able to find financial and public support, gain infrastructure, own market, and popularity. I am grateful that people and organizations made us feel noticed, loved, and appreciated.

Positive feedback, new exciting offers of creative partnerships, funding opportunities make me even more inspired to stage new dances, find new creative ways to blend dance styles and participate in cultural and educational outreach. It is an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to bring people together and to bring them joy.

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