Colleen Prince was 11 years old when she attended her first Ukrainian dance camp at a diaspora community in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. Today, she’s teaching and learning folk dance in Ukraine with her Fulbright scholarship.
Prince, who graduated from Hillsdale in May 2019, moved to Ostroh in west Ukraine in September to teach English language at the national university there. In addition to assisting as many as four linguistics classes a day, Prince is pursuing her passion for Ukrainian folk dance — by taking an hour-long bus each week to the nearest big city to join an ensemble.
“The last bus back departs at 8 p.m., and sometimes it doesn’t depart at all,” Prince said. “Out of safety, I just stay at a hostel in the town, and then the next morning I get up early, hop on a 6 a.m. bus and get back in time to teach a 9 a.m. class.”
In November, Prince will begin dancing with another small ensemble in the next town over.
Prince studied Ukrainian folk dance for 11 years before moving to Ostroh, mostly by dancing at camps and festivals at home in Pennsylvania during the summer. Joining these dance communities at home in Pennsylvania was a natural fit for Prince, who grew up near two diaspora. Prince’s great-grandparents were Russian-Ukrainian, and her grandmother grew up in France, a refugee from the Russian revolution.
“It’s been a struggle because there’s a difference between the diaspora community’s relationship with folk dance and the everyday Ukranians’ relationship with folk dance,” Prince explained. “Folk dance is actually not as popular here as you’d think, especially in the smaller cities.”
Though her Fulbright sponsors her to teach English linguistics, Prince said she chose to apply for Ukraine because of her long love of their folk dances.
“I realized that I originally came here with a bit of a self-centered perspective, wanting to improve myself as a folk dancer,” Prince said. “I didn’t fully realize what coming here as a cultural Ukrainian diaspora ambassador from the United States really was until I arrived. Ethnic art in the country itself is very different than in diaspora communities — which makes a lot of sense, because Pennsylvania wasn’t starved out by the Russians. I realized I actually need to sacrifice and contribute and work hard at learning from the amazing artists who are here.”
No two days in Ukraine look the same for Prince, but one thing that is consistent in her life in Ukraine: Lots of buses.
“My life is like a big bus,” she said, laughing. “Ukranian buses are wild. They are a beast. I watched the new Meryl Steep movie, ‘The Laundromat,’ and they’re showing these buses in Panama like, ‘Oh, look how terrible they are,’ and I thought, ‘Um, that literally looks like my commute.’”
Prince said she’s taking every opportunity she can to dance — including moving to Kyiv for the month of January to study with an ensemble there. Though she described folk dance as “dormant,” Prince said it’s not dying and she hopes to dedicate her efforts to keep it alive.
“There are some really incredibly advanced dance ensembles here in Ukraine,” she said. “I want to make their names known and support them in anyway that I can. The dream is, of course, to dance in one myself.”
As a philosophy and Spanish double major, with minors in dance and French, Prince didn’t have a lot of time to spare for folk dance while at Hillsdale.
“In the summer it’s really easy. You’re able to practice with your ensembles; you’re going on tour a lot and everything,” Prince said. “And then at Hillsdale it was a huge challenge, because folk dance isn’t as popular here. It was difficult to find time to train myself and to teach others.”
Instead, she poured her efforts into learning modern dance with Jillian Hopper, lecturer in modern dance at Hillsdale, and continuing her ballet training with Assistant Professor of Dance Holly Hobbs.
Hopper said when she met Prince, Prince already had an extensive dance background.
“She had already gone to Jacob’s Pillow — one of the largest dance festivals in the world, in Massachusetts, with this very long history,” Hopper said. “The festival happens every summer, and she had been asked to perform there, and she didn’t really know what it was because she hadn’t done modern dance. To me that was very impressive because it’s very prestigious; not everyone gets invited that way.”
Hopper and Hobbs both agreed Prince grew a lot as a dancer at Hillsdale, expanding her lexicon of movement.
“One of the best memories I’ll carry with me was the dance she put together for the American College Dance Association,” Hopper said. “She choreographed and got to perform this solo piece that was totally outside of her Ukrainian dance background. It was totally postmodern and theatrical and it was beautiful. I’ll always have this image of her on that stage in that costume under those lights and owning that stage.”
Prince said she’s drawn to folk dance because it captures the human spirit in a different way than other dance genres. It was founded in the streets of Ukraine by ordinary people and used throughout history as a political statement or a way for Ukrainian people to reconnect with their heritage.
“Folk dance is connected to a specific culture and a specific historical background and a specific people. In many ways it can be used as a political statement, sometimes it can be used as a cultural statement, things like that,” Prince said. “Folk dance during the Soviet Union served sometimes as propaganda. It’s very raw and very human in that sense. You can feel that — you can feel that adrenaline rush when you do it.”
Most of the songs are patriotic, or even war songs, which “tug at something inside the human heart,” she said.
“Part of the country I’m currently living in is a war zone,” she said. “Understandably, folk dance isn’t a number one priority in Ukraine. But I think it should be, actually.”