Dancing with Ukrainians

Fred Astaire Dance Studios Richmond provides a home for Ukrainian dance instructors to follow their dreams.

Vlad Sirotin began dancing when he was barely 6 years old, after attending a dance performance with his mother in Ukraine.

He enjoyed it so much he began taking lessons, earning a diploma in choreography, and going on to dance in his native Ukraine as well as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates before settling right here in Richmond, Va.

Sirotin was attracted to Richmond because he had dancer friends working at the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, where he also began teaching. “The lifestyle in Richmond is soft, calm and smooth,” he says, using terminology that could describe dance moves. “I love going to the beautiful parks with family and friends.”

Also, teaching students of all ages and abilities appeals to him.

“The best part is when people understand something for the first time and they are so excited and happy,” he says. “It makes me happy because I taught them to do it.”

International Dance Day is this Friday, April 29th and one place that truly epitomizes that spirit is the Fred Astaire Dance Studios Richmond (a franchise of FADS USA). Accomplished professional dancer Tommy Bettin opened the studio in 2018 and Maggie Small, a star company dancer with Richmond Ballet for 16 years, joined him in operating the studio in March 2021. Both are former Style Weekly Top 40 under 40 winners; today the duo actively recruits instructors from all over the world, as well as pursuing the wellspring of staff referrals.

Competitive ballroom and Latin dance are hugely popular activities for young people in Ukraine, and there is a strong Ukrainian presence in the ballroom industry, Small says. Because their first recruit was Ukrainian, many of that dancer’s global connections were Ukrainian as well, so their Richmond staff of instructors is weighted in that direction.

“Just like competitive sports for children here, the skills honed in competitive dancing result in a large pool of highly skilled young dancers who can pursue dancing professionally, competitively, teaching, coaching and choreographing,” Small explains. “They’re remarkably passionate about dancing, hard-working and committed to each student’s personal dance journey, which gets passed along to students.”

The studio has a total of five instructors who have all danced together somewhere else in the world. Every Friday night from 7:30 to 9 p.m. the staff holds a beginner class and practice party that is free and open to anyone. The first 30 to 45 minutes the attendees learn the basic steps of three different dances while the rest of the time is the practice party, where students and instructors dance to music that matches the rhythm of the dances they learned. “It’s a great way to meet the community we have at the studio and try it out,” says Small.

Growing up, 23-year-old Alina Suvidova danced in Ukraine, Turkey, China, and Paris, but was always curious about why more older adults didn’t dance.

“I wanted to bring dance to a different age category and prove that anyone can dance,” Suvidova says, adding that the benefits extend to the instructor as well. “You have to talk when you teach and I was a shy person, so I have become more confident communicating and developing my English and being more social.”

Sasha Kucheriavyi was looking for work at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio in 2018 when he met Bettin just as he was starting the school.

“It was an amazing challenge to be part of starting it from the ground up and building an amazing culture,” says Kucheriavyi, who bought a house in Richmond and whose son was born here. “I’ve been dancing 28 years and I know that dance can change your life. I love meeting Ukrainians who came to the U.S. to change their lives and follow their dreams.”

In 2019, Kucheriavyi referred Yehor Kupriianov, a long-time dancer looking for new experiences after dancing in Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Turkey. A dancer since age 7, Kupriianov was immediately drawn to Richmond’s small, comfortable vibe, while also appreciating how his homeland’s profile has been raised of late.

“It seems like Americans are learning more about Ukraine given the current circumstances,” he says. “There used to be confusion of Ukraine and Russia being the same, but we are two different countries.”

In 2019, Alina Kupriianova moved with husband Yehor to Richmond, only to discover new hobbies like camping and fishing, and a lifestyle far calmer than the one she left. Dancing and teaching dance have brought many joys to her life including travel, new friends, and learning about different cultures and attitudes. But at the end of the day, it’s what she brings to her students that matters most: “I love teaching because it makes my students feel happy,” she explains. “I like to help them make dreams and goals come true.”

Small, a professional who enjoyed a career dancing around the country and internationally while still living in her hometown of Richmond, continues to be impressed by the Ukrainian instructors. Each of them moved to a new country with a different language and knowing very few people, she notes, and were able to thrive while maintaining connections to their culture, homes and families.

“Their bravery, gumption and tenacity are inspiring on a daily basis,” Small says. “On a totally ballet nerd level, we have fun learning from each other about the different ways that the techniques of ballet, ballroom and Latin dance relate to each another.”

Fred Astaire Dance Studios Richmond is also giving back to Ukraine, having raised funds through its Fundraiser for Families in Ukraine party to donate to United Help Ukraine, a charity that provides medical aid and humanitarian relief to Ukranians; in this case with money sent to family members of Richmond’s team.

For anyone looking for deeper insight into the Ukrainian psyche, Kupriianova says to look no further than the giant screens in New York’s Times Square that read, “Be brave like Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Fred Astaire Dance Studios is doing its part to bring a bit of the warmth of the Ukrainian people to RVA.

“Our culture in dance clubs and studios in Ukraine is very friendly and we have tried to bring that here,” Suvidova says. “It’s like a family and we’ve built our family here.”


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