After two years of uncertainty, hosting Saturday’s Obzhynky Festival was a huge relief for the Prince Albert Barveenok Ukrainian Dancers.
The event celebrates the traditional end of Ukrainian harvest with food, songs, and dance, but it wasn’t held in 2020 or 2021 due to COVID-19. The event is not only one of the community’s most popular cultural festivals, it’s also one of the group’s major fundraisers.
“Relief is a fantastic word for it,” club president Kayleigh Skomorowski said. “It’s been a time, as it has been for all of us who are involved in community organizations and (activities) with kids, but to be back at a place where we can get back into regular fundraising event expectations for the organization, it’s just good to keep that momentum going.”
The club was hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, which lead to a special emergency fundraiser in June just to keep going. The fruits of those efforts were on display Saturday at the Prince Albert Exhibition Centre, when nearly 50 local dancers took to the stage, many of them participating in their first Obzhynky Festival.
“It’s very exciting,” said Jeremy Salahub, a member of the senior dance group. “I’ve really missed it during these years off during COVID.”
Salahub has danced with Barveenok for as long as he can remember. His brother was also involved with the club, as were his parents.
He views the event as a chance to promote Ukrainian culture while also bringing Prince Albert residents together. He’s happy the club has a chance to do both, and even happier to return to the stage after two difficult years.
“It’s very sad that we had to close down and not do it for a few years but I’m so glad that we’re back,” Salahub said. “I have so much fun at these.”
Roughly 290 people attended Saturday’s festival, a slight decline from the pre-COVID average of between 330 to 340. However, it was more than enough to please dancers and organizers, who were a bit worried the crowds wouldn’t return.
“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Skomorowski said. “Not everybody’s super comfortable gathering still, so we weren’t sure. We’re only about 40 tickets shy of where we were in 2019, so I think that’s an overwhelming success, considering the climate we’re still encountering ‘post’ COVID.”
Skomorowski credited the community for playing a major role in helping the club stay afloat during the worst days of the COVID lockdowns. Even after many of the restrictions ended, the club still needed an emergency 9-1-1 fundraiser, and a major donation from a local business to stay afloat.
Skomorowski said it was a nervous time, but they were encourage by the community support.
“It’s just great to feel that big warm hug that Prince Albert really has given our organization as we’ve been struggling these last few weeks,” she said.
The number of dancers has also started to rebound. The club is slightly below their pre-COVID levels, but growing. Skomorowski said club members worked hard to increase their visibility in the community, and that’s helped them recruit new families and dancers.
While Saturday’s event was largely a celebration, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the evening. The performances started with a prayer and a moment of silence for the victims of the war.
Skomorowski said not everyone felt it was appropriate to hold a celebration while so many Ukrainians were suffering. However, the club felt it important to keep teaching and spreading Ukrainian song and dance.
“It’s such a double-edged sword depending on who you talk to,” she explained. “We’ve had people in our own community who don’t feel super comfortable celebrating Ukrainian culture at a time when our ancestral home is literally under siege. I know that those who have some of those personal connections still do feel that conflict, but I think for those of us who are second and third generation immigrants, it’s about celebrating the fact that we have this opportunity to preserve and to teach our children what it means to be Ukrainian (and) what it means to be Ukrainian-Canadian.
“I think it’s all the more important to us, even though it does come with that sting. It’s celebratory. It’s exciting. It’s good, but we know (the war) is always in the back of our minds. We’re fortunate that we can gather here today.”
That gathering almost didn’t happen for a completely different reason when the power went out Saturday afternoon. Skomorowski said it was another nervous moment on a road that’s had many, but said the war in Ukraine helps keep things in perspective.
“We have those little challenges that seem big when you’re planning an event like this, but the alternative could be so much worse,” he said. “It’s a good lesson in humility.”