Hromovytsia: strength, power, ethereal beauty - like what we see in a Thunderstorm, and those words seem to perfectly embody the spirit of the Hromovytsia Ukrainian Dance Ensemble in Chicago. Throw in some heritage, a whole lot of passion, and a network of dancers whose friendships resemble the intricate ties of a spider’s web, and you’ve got yourself a basic understanding of what it truly means to be a member of Hromovytsia.
For artistic director Roxana Pylypczak, nicknamed Pani Shania by friends and dancers, Hromovytsia has always been a family affair.
“The best part about being Artistic Director is becoming a teacher, a motivator, a friend, and even a second mother to my dancers,” Pani Shania said.
We become family, and it’s important that that connection is there from the start because without those relationships, all you have is individual dancers.
But Hromovytsia wasn’t always the well-known organization it is today. The company was formed in 1980 by just four dancers: Pani Shania herself, as well as her husband Ivan Pylypczak, Yura Cepynsky, and Marta Kozyckyj. With just four dancers, zero exposure, and no financial sponsors, the journey to the top was hard. Hromovytsia was quite literally built from the ground up step by step, prysitka by prysitka.
“The company was created over thirty years ago,” said Daniela Pylypczak Wasylyszyn, assistant director of the ensemble and Pani Shania’s daughter.
It was the product of a dream. A dream created by four dancers who wanted to share with the community their love, pride, and passion of their Ukrainian Heritage.
Since 1980, the company has come a long way. With at least one show a year, and numerous appearances at community festivals, Hromovytsia has become a staple of Chicago’s Ukrainian Diaspora. Certainly, no other festival performances are as anxiously anticipated as are the crowd-raising, heart-stopping, feet-stomping dances of Hromovytsia. For Pani Shania, though, it never mattered if the company had 8 dancers or 50.
“Back in the day, I considered each show, no matter how small, a step toward success,” Pani Shania said.
“Show people how much hard work you put in, show them all your strengths, and they will respond. Every performance was a stepping stone to where we are today.”
With almost fifty dancers, it seems safe to say that the people did respond. Hromovytsia’s most recent show “Cabaret 2092” was the highlight of the Diaspora’s spring season. The sold-out show toyed with the concept of the future – who are we Ukrainians, and where are we going? Hitting at a time of crisis in Ukraine, the show pulled on the heartstrings as much as it entertained.
While the show explored concepts of bionic strength, perfect women, and the creation of dreams, Daniela Pylypczak Wasylyszyn explained that there was one underlying element that was meant to ring true in all the choreography.
“All of the concepts show some type of evolution to society,” Daniela said. “But what was most important to show the audience was that while we can and should evolve, one thing that will never change for Hromovytsia or for the Ukrainian Community is our unconditional love for all that it means to be a Ukrainian.”
In many ways, Chicago’s Ukrainian Diaspora is a family, people brought together by similarities in culture, values, and a desire to preserve a mutual identity. Since its creation, Hromovytsia has grown into a key player in the Diaspora. Just as parents send their children to Ukrainian Saturday School to learn the Ukrainian language, they send their kids to Hromovytsia to learn Ukrainian dance. It’s a matter of preserving heritage.
Hromovytsia is unique in that it not only strives to capture the spirit of the Ukrainian culture, it pushes the boundaries of what most have come to identify as folk dancing,
Daniela said. “I think that the Diaspora identifies with this philosophy. They want to experience not only the traditional side, but also see how it can be enriched – evolved – taken to the next level.”
“Cabaret 2092” is a prime example of how Hromovytsia has elevated Ukrainian dance. Despite modern choreography and the futuristic theme, the final number of the show presented dancers donning the traditional red boots and Ukrainian headpieces.
“I am Hromovytsia. I am Ukrainian,” echoed over the speaker. “We have shown you how far we have advanced by 2092. And while technology has altered our lives, one part that remains the same – unchanged – is our hearts. Our hearts bleed blue and yellow.”
It was a chilling moment. Living outside the borders of Ukraine makes it easy to forget your roots, easy to develop a new identity, but Hromovytsia strives to remind people who they are and where they come from. Through “Cabaret 2092,” Hromovytsia reminded the community of how important it truly is to be a member of this Diaspora.
Because of Hromovytsia, Ukrainian dance has become a vital component of the Ukrainian American upbringing in Chicago. For many kids, dancing with Blyskovytsia, Hromovytsia’s School of Dance, is a given. It’s the pathway to joining the admired Hromovytsia Company. For current dancer Marta Baran, joining Hromovytsia has always been a dream.
“I remember watching Hromovytsia dance as a child,” Baran said. “It was engrossing. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat following their storyline. Now as a dancer, it’s such an indescribable feeling to be up on the stage, getting that feedback from the audience. Those vibes make you want to keep going, push harder, and become an even better dancer always.”
When speaking with Hromovytsia dancers about what it means to be a Hromovytsia dancer, one word comes up over and over again – Family.
“We are all united by our love for the Ukrainian culture, history, and traditions,” Daniela said.
“Each and every one of us puts our heart and soul into every step at every performance – what my mama likes to call ‘laying it all out.’ The passion and drive to preserve and elevate our culture creates a unique bond between the dancers. We are all one family – with roots that extend beyond our love for Hromovytsia, the community, and most importantly, our heritage.”
One family, one culture, but many dancers … Throughout the years, Hromovytsia has evolved greatly. Members leave and members come, but as Daniela explained, the beauty of Hromovytsia is the company’s ability to adapt and change, zeroing in on the strengths of each particular generation of dancers.
Still, despite generational changes, most alumni joke that once a member, always a member.
“Hromovytsia dancers are my family,” Pani Shania said. “There is no other way to put it. It’s our relationships out of the studio and in that make us the unique group we are. I am so proud of every dancer, current and past. It’s a bond that doesn’t just stop because you don’t dance anymore.”
With heart, passion, and soul, Hromovytsia seems to be the quintessential Ukrainian family in Chicago’s broad Diaspora.
By Olga Tymouch
Photos by Maksym Prokopiv