This is the story of Sofia Dudar, Olena Kychula and a community of courageous young women, brought together by a passion for dance and a shared commitment to their beloved homeland, Ukraine.
For those of us in the Zumba Fitness community, its global footprint across one hundred eighty-five counties and an accessible on-line presence have made the world a much smaller place.
Despite its advantages, the immediate nature of cyber space brings painful realities to our doorsteps. If Vietnam was the first televised war, Ukraine brings a new era of war-time participation from civilian populations.
Unknown to most, Zumba empowers instructors to build community and give back to it. Partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, the United Nations World Food Programme and Zumba’s own Global Research Grant for Breast Cancer Prevention are the tip of the iceberg. With thousands of grassroots philanthropic efforts each year, the cumulative impact during Zumba’s first twenty years is incalculable.
Meet Olena Kychula. Born in Murmansk, Polyarny, to Ukrainian parents, Olena moved to Ternopil, Ukraine at age five where her mother introduced her to the world of dance. Her love of the art sustained her throughout her life and, upon emigrating to the United States with her husband in 2004, Olena started teaching dance to children in their Ukrainian church.
Today, Olena cherishes two moments in her life. The birth of her son Maxim in 2006 and the day in 2013 when she received her Zumba license. “My joy knew no bounds,” beams Olena. “Each year I bring my son back to Ukraine to visit my mother, and in 2013 I brought Zumba to Ternopil.” Thus began the Zumba community in Ternopil where Olena met thirteen year old Sofia Dudar in her class. “Sofia was so good,” recalls Olena, “I suggested she become an instructor.”
Earlier this year, the now twenty year old Sofia was thriving in Ternopil, finishing up her bachelor’s degree, teaching Zumba in two studios, happily dating her boyfriend and enjoying life with her parents. With Putin’s increasing military buildup along Ukraine’s border, her family gathered up important documents but could do little else to prepare for what was to come.
Then it happened. “It was the most awful morning,” recalls Sofia. “I woke up because of sirens. At first I didn’t believe it. I ran to the window and opened it. It was real.” She woke her mother and turned on the news. “Putin had started a war on Ukraine.”
Sofia and her mother watched the images of tens of thousands leaving Kyiv and called their relatives for support. Sofia’s next instinct was to go on-line and rally her community of Zumba Instructors near and far. She knew of Putin’s ability to spread false news stories to keep his people in the dark, so she and her community decided to go on the offensive so others could hear the truth from Ukraine.
“First, I went on-line to connect with our Zumba instructors from Ukraine and around the world, especially from Russia, about Putin’s war, the invasion of our country and the murder of civilians. We shared information every way we could, including a livestream so our foreign colleagues would know the truth.” said Sofia.
Keeping in close contact through their Zumba network, Ukrainian instructors got busy. Sofia explains, “Many instructors became volunteers, some cook for armed forces, some weave, some give humanitarian aid and comfort. We look after each other.”
Sofia reconnected with her friend Olena in the US. Sofia recalls that Olena was also devastated and outraged by Putin’s war. “She was working all day collecting money, buying bulletproof vests, medicines and all that our people need. Her brother was in Ukraine and making sure these lifesaving things got to where they are needed most.”
The work of Sofia, Olena, and their network of instructors inspired many around the world to take action. Zumbathon Charity events began to pop up in countries near and far, from New York to New Zealand, keeping the focus on Ukraine and raising funds for humanitarian aid.
Today, from New York, Olena declares, “I may live in America, but my heart and soul are in Ukraine. I raise money to buy things difficult to find in Ukraine. I buy bulletproof vests, boots, medical supplies. I help in the church here to pack and send things people bring us. Ukrainians have courage. We are strong. We have to be.”
As for Sofia, despite her determination to stay in her beloved Ukraine, she honored her father’s wishes to leave. “My father forced us to leave Ukraine but I understand it, he is worried about us. It is very dangerous to stay.”
I followed Sofia’s journey to Warsaw, Poland as she left her childhood home and all that she loved. She texted me from Warsaw. “We made it safely. We sit here in the station with many others. It is difficult. In a few hours my mother and I will board a train to Germany with transfers to Spain where we will temporarily stay with my godmother. I am so tired.”
I asked Sofia what she wants the world to know. “I want the world to know that Putin is a killer. He kills children. He kills innocent people. He spreads death and sadness. But I want the world to also know Ukrainians will always fight for their freedom. We will always fight for our independence. Always.”
As I conclude this writing, Sophia made the 35 hour trek back to Ukraine, defying her father’s wishes. She wrote to me from the floor of a bomb shelter in Ternopil. “I had to return,” she confides. “The sirens are back and now I sit in the bomb shelter once more. But I am here where I need to be. I can help my country fight and I can help the refugees. My father is angry but it is immoral for me to stay away. I just want peace. I just want my people to stop dying.”
David Topel is the author of The Heart of a Leader, an editorial writer on matters of social justice advocacy and former Community Manager of Zumba Fitness