“Dancing makes me happy,” said Zlata Dzhaman, one of three new dance instructors at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio (FADS) in Suffield Village. Zlata is a Ukrainian and new to this country. Aged 24, she has danced for 12 years. Though shy, she is a vibrant young woman whose eyes light up when she talks about dance but tearful when she speaks of Ukraine.
When Anastasia Barhatova, the owner of the Suffield FADS, learned from Zlata’s older sister, a dance instructor at the Glastonbury FADS, that Zlata wanted to come to the United States, Anastasia knew what to do. She was in the process of sponsoring Oleksii Betin and Marharyta Ivochkina, the other two dance instructors.
Anastasia left Moldova for the United States in 2012 as a dance instructor for FADS, which she did for ten years. In November 2021, she and Andrew Kerski, her partner, opened the Suffield dance studio. Fortunately, despite the pandemic, the studio is successful. Before the Ukrainian war started, Anastasia hoped to sponsor a male dance instructor from Ukraine. Her plans fell apart when the war started and a travel ban barred men, aged 18 to 60, from leaving the country. Emotionally distraught by the war, fearful for her Ukrainian friends and with the encouragement of FADS, she continues to sponsor Ukrainians, especially those who have no one to assist them.
Oleksii Betin, his wife and two children arrived here from Poland in September. Realizing that war was imminent, they left Kharkiv for Poland before the war started. Of all the cities in Ukraine, Kharkiv has been bombed the most. Oleksii lost everything, including his house. Having a family made it more difficult to find a sponsorship, but that did not deter Anastasia. More people, more paperwork, it didn’t faze her, as she has a law degree as well as one in choreography.
Marharyta Ivochkina arrived from Moldova via Odessa last June. A few days after she left Odessa, her apartment building was destroyed. Zlata arrived in August, accompanied by her dog Dora, who required still more paperwork. Dora, like Zlata and Marharyta is learning English. Oleksii speaks English very well.
Zlata was studying and working in Kiev when the Ukrainian war broke out. Her home is Melitopol in eastern Ukraine, which has been under Russian occupation since the war started. Zlata’s parents still live there. Although Zlata is able to communicate with them, life is difficult. She cannot send money to them. Ukrainian banks have been shuttered and bank accounts canceled. The only currency is Russian. Gas and food shortages are constants. Even eggs require a two-day wait in line.
To leave Ukraine, Zlata had to travel to Poland first. The bus trip to the border was a horror. Usually, a five or six-hours journey, the bus took 24 hours as it skirted around ruined roads and dangerous zones. The bus was packed with animals and people, standing or sitting, all wedged together.
Building a new life in the United States is overwhelming. Paperwork for jobs and housing take months. But Anastasia says people have been helpful, from the immigration guards who eased Dora and Zlata through the airport, to the apartment owners who provided housing for Oleksii’s family and Marharyta. Zlata and Dora live with Anastasia.
American Latin dancing and Ballroom dancing are taught at the studio. On Saturdays from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Anastasia opens the studio to anyone who would like to come for music, dance and good company. The studio also hosts welcoming parties for newly-arrived Ukrainians. Zlata often cooks for them, making Ukrainian specialties such as borscht and potato pancakes called draniki.
In both December and January, Zlata, Marharyta and Oleksii performed the largest segment in a dance showcase fundraiser which raised $20,000 for Tony Dovolani’s foundation for specials needs children. Dovolani is famous for his 21 years on “Dancing with the Stars.” The instructors also perform in frequent dance competitions. Oleksii is Zlata’s partner but also Marharyta’s until she can find another partner. In town, they have worked with the Senior Center and the Parkinson Peer Support Group facilitated by Suffield Community Aid.
What will happen to Zlata, Marharyta and Oleksii when the war ends? They do not know. They pray for their country, their families, health and hope. Living day to day, they find joy in dance.
Anastasia says that the true heroes of the Ukrainian War are the parents who try to give their children a normal, joyful life. Despite the war, they continue to send their children to school and to dance, theater and art classes. They sew costumes and prep their kids for competitions. Hardships, trauma, death but also hope and joy are a part of Ukrainian life.