At this Philly-area Ukrainian Folk Festival, mad dance moves, pierogi, beer, and heritage swirl together
“Everything Ukrainian ends with a party.”
A mini Ukrainian village hides at the edge of Jenkintown and Rockledge, concealed inside a two-story, brick colonial-revival-style building on Cedar Road. It’s the home of the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center.
Ukrainian Americans from across the region come here to bank at a Ukrainian credit union, send kids to language classes, hold weddings in the ceremony hall, read books in the Ukrainian library, and partake in choir and social clubs.
On a recent Thursday night, with most of the building quiet and dark, a dozen folk dancers gathered inside a mirror-lined basement studio for rehearsal. As they began to perform, the glass panes came to life with a frenzied series of choreographed high-kicks, ballerina twirls, and high-speed steps that had the stocking-clad dancers zigzagging around the room. The symphonic soundtrack went from fast to faster, a score even more frantic than the performance.
“These folk dances are character dances that help to maintain our traditions and give insight into everyday life in Ukraine,” explained Taras Lewyckyj, artistic director for the Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. “This one’s about a gypsy camp [that] gets a second wind at night and everyone breaks out into a wild dance party.”
“Everything Ukrainian ends with a party,” he added.
It was the final rehearsal for the Ukrainian Folk Festival, a long-running tradition, returning to Horsham Township’s Tryzub Ukrainian American Sports Center for its 28th year this Sunday, Aug. 25. It falls a day after Ukraine’s Independence Day, officially declared on Aug. 24, 1991. The Tryzub festival is one of the longest-running Independence Day festivals in the United States.
Most of the festival’s 3,000 attendees are Ukrainian American, but in recent years, about 35 percent were non-Ukrainian. They show up for the sausage and pierogies, the martial arts-inspired dance moves, and the folky tunes from instruments like the accordion and the wooden flute, swirling together into high-tempo melodies. But they also connect on a deeper level.
“I’m an African American out of West Philadelphia — a long way away from Ukraine — but their culture is so embracing that it always feels like I fit right in,” says Carolyn Nichols, a festival-goer of four years. “They’re full of this genuine warmth, want you to sample their food and sit at their table with their family, and it’s all very heartfelt. And the stories are so compelling — all of their struggles to have freedom is certainly something I can relate to.”
“People always ask [Ukrainian Americans]: ‘Why do you go to those churches with the gold domes? Why do you still listen to Ukrainian music or watch those dances, and spend so much time trying to showcase it?’ ” says Gene Luciw, a festival organizer. “It’s because we’ve been fighting suppression for centuries. We know what it’s like to not be permitted to do things that we so very closely hold to our hearts, and so now it’s almost an obligation that we carry these traditions forward — to show that we will survive.”
Ukraine has waged a centuries-long battle to liberate its land and people from foreign control, including periods of Polish, Lithuanian, and Soviet rule, as well as its occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II. More recently, in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula; aggression continues today, despite international sanctions.
“We know how fragile independence can be,” Luciw says. “So we hold these festivals to honor how hard we’ve fought, but also to act as ambassadors of our homeland and simply have fun. Hospitality is a huge part of the culture, and we invite anyone to come out and bond with us.”
The Philadelphia region claims the second-largest population of Ukrainian Americans in the country. It began blooming in the late 1800s, when work was plentiful at the city’s docks and in its ironworks, sugar refineries, and locomotive factories. Pockets of immigrants settled in modern-day Point Breeze and North Philadelphia, clustering in parishes and social clubs.
Larger waves arrived in the first half of the 20th century, especially after World War II, when the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 saw tens of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants arrive in the U.S. And an additional 20,000 or so have arrived in the area since 1991. Philadelphia is still home to many — more than 13,000 people identified as Ukrainian Americans in the latest American Community Survey — but Bucks and Montgomery Counties each claim more than 10,000, as well.
“We now have a very diverse community, third, fourth, fifth generations who are bound by the culture that remains from those original pioneers,” Luciw says.
He adds that festivals like the one in Horsham help maintain the strength of the community’s heritage, as do institutions like the educational center; the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Jenkintown’s Manor College, home to a folk-art collection and workshops on beadweaving and embroidery; and Tryzub, which was founded more than 70 years ago and is home to six-time American Soccer League champions the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals.
Besides checking out the sports center’s shady grounds (43 acres’ worth), visitors can fill up on Ukrainian shashlik kebabs and baked goods like honey cake, and wash them down with draft pours of Obolon, a Ukrainian lager. They’ll be able to shop for Ukrainian- and Ukrainian American-made items like hand-embroidered clothes, wood carvings, and jewelry. But music and dance — including a performance by the Voloshky ensemble — anchor the festivities.
“At many times, Ukrainian language and literature weren’t permitted [in Ukraine], and so dance and music became a way for us to maintain our identity,” Lewyckyj says. “Dance makes our culture accessible for everyone, giving us a window to demonstrate who we are.”