Ukrainian children are sure to dance in Prague

Prague (AFP) – Six-year-old Eva stretches her body backwards with ease and her satisfied smile is reflected in the dance studio’s large mirror, while other Ukrainian children look on in awe as they try to copy her.

They are all attending a free ballet class for young Ukrainian refugees opened by the National Theater in Prague in late March, a month after Russia began invading Ukraine.

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Two dozen Ukrainian children present in the room, including a boy, try to imitate Eva’s graceful gestures, but some eventually sit down to watch.

“My daughter and I watched the Sleeping Beauty ballet at the National Opera. (…) We jumped at the chance!” Eva’s mother, Yulia Petronchak, told AFP.

This university professor and her daughter left the city of Lviv in western Ukraine for Prague on the first day of the invasion to escape the “continuous air alert” while Father d’Eva stayed in his country.

More than 4.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the invasion began on February 24, and around 300,000 have landed in the Czech Republic.

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Like many course participants, Eva is not a beginner: Before she left, she attended the choreography school in Lemberg for six months.

– ‘The cradle of classical dance’ –

“I’ve already spotted some talent,” says Jana Jodasova, 59, a former National Theater dancer with a two-decade career behind her who now teaches classical dance.

At the beginning of the class, she helps the dancers choose leotards and ballet shoes. The parents of the Czech children attending their regular classes donated three whole bags.

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Meanwhile, the little Ukrainian ballerinas, already dressed, practice pirouettes alone or test the strength of the dance studio’s bars.

The idea for the class came to Ms. Jodasova shortly after the Russian invasion began, while watching “The Horrors” of War on TV.

“Russia and Ukraine are the cradle of classical dance, most of the children there take ballet classes at least for a while,” she told AFP news agency. “Ballet is one of those things they can’t live without.”

Moments later, she finds herself facing a crowd of about 100 mothers with their children queuing outside the building to sign up for the free class.

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– ‘Arms and legs’ –

This new role forced Ms. Jodasova to rediscover her forgotten knowledge of Russian, a language forced on Czechs and other nations under communist rule in Moscow until 1989.

“I communicate with children with my arms and legs and very bad Russian. But I feel like we can understand each other,” she says.

When she has difficulties, she turns to eight-year-old Alisa Kolesnikova, who was born to Russian parents in Prague and attends a regular course with the children from the neighborhood.

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Alisa, who has been attending the ballet school for three years and would like to become a ballerina, is happy about the opportunity to guide the little refugees in their exercises.

“I love showing things to kids, especially beginners,” the red-haired, blue-eyed dancer told AFP.

– Hope to return to Ukraine –

Five-year-old Vasilisa Malakutska, one of the youngest in the free class, is no beginner either. “I first took her to a ballet class when I was four and she didn’t take it very well, but I think now is the right time,” says her mother, Ekaterina Malakutska, a marketing expert from Kyiv.

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She is considering a career as a dancer for her daughter, just like little Eva’s mother. “Either a ballerina or a doctor,” Ms Petronchak said, adding that while Eva is happy in Prague, her future remains in Ukraine.

“The safety of the child is of vital importance. But if there are no (anti-aircraft) warnings in western Ukraine … let’s hope to get home as soon as possible.

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