It was late spring 2011 when I was invited to Kyiv to teach a Pilates on the Ball workshop for a group of Ukrainian Pilates teachers. I remember an exquisite European city draped by a canopy of chestnut tree blossoms and fragrant lilac trees. I remember dandelions, wildflowers, and lacy bushes of vivid green in pretty parks, not overly manicured. Most of all, I remember it was June—the sun was high in the sky from the moment you woke up to when you went to bed.
On the day before the workshop, Elena, the host, a former physical education teacher who now devoted herself to her Pilates business, took me on a long walk through the center of the capital. We visited the blue church of St. Michael’s Monastery with its gorgeous shiny cupolas. We paused at the nearby monument to the victims of the great famine. English placards told the dark history of seven to ten million peasants who died of starvation in the 1930s, a famine that was generated by the Soviets to solve the ‘nationalist problem’ of troublesome republics such as Ukraine.
Elena and I spoke little of politics. She discussed how Ukraine had embraced Pilates, and where the fitness industry was heading as the country moved closer to western Europe. The USSR had dissolved twenty years previously, in 1991. She and I descended the snaking cobbled tourist street of Andriyivky Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent), had tea at an outside cafe, where we admired the magnificent blue baroque St. Andrew’s Church. I was so taken by the five-domed church, built in 1754, that I bought a large oil painting of it from a Ukrainian artist, Zinchenko, who was selling his work right on the crooked pavement on the side of the incline. He carefully removed the painting, dry but still smelling of oil, from its wooden frame and rolled it up for me to make it easier to transport back to Canada. In addition to the church painting, I purchased a small oil called Gladioli, and a larger one, Sunflowers.
The next day was the Pilates workshop, and when I stepped into the beautiful sun-lit studio my heart stilled. The windows were full length and the room had that spacious, exclusive yet friendly atmosphere that I have seen in Pilates studios around the world. Twenty Pilates teachers, mainly women in their twenties and thirties, had come from all over Ukraine to attend. At the lunch break, I found out that many had their own studios; others worked at health clubs; some taught Pilates out of a room in their apartments. I was struck by how much English was spoken and how little we needed to rely on the translator.
Where are these people now?
Whenever I see the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on my television screen, I think of these Pilates teachers. When I watch on-the-run women bundled in winter coats and woolen hats, holding close their children and pets, I think of these teachers. They would be of the age to have left husbands and brothers behind as they escaped to Poland or Moldova. Did some stay behind with a family member too frail to travel? Or are they now in a new land of uncertainty and hardship?
I also think of the artist, Zinchenko, whose paintings now hang in my home. Where is he now? I can’t clearly remember his age, but if he is younger than sixty, he might be fighting somewhere in his war torn country.
How can we help?
Last month Victoria Goncharenko, a Ukrainian-Canadian Pilates teacher, let people in the Pilates community know that she was setting up an initiative to help Ukraine. In four days, she and her Body Harmonics colleagues filled a 20-foot cargo truck full of food, clothing, hygiene products, and medical supplies. She mentioned that many donations were accompanied by heartfelt personal notes.
I wrote to Victoria to ask what we can we do this month to help Ukraine. She told me that she is in direct contact with an organization in Kyiv, a group of incredible women and men who cook, bake and distribute food to the civilians who serve as the area’s guardians when they’re on duty, as well to other people in need. A close friend of Victoria’s in Kyiv is part of this initiative.
I am organizing a cash collection to transfer to Victoria’s friend to help keep up the distribution of food. Cash, says Victoria, is the most useful of all, as everything that is needed can be purchased nearby. Please contact me before May 15th if you would like to make a cash donation. I am very grateful to Victoria for organizing this initiative and for giving us a small way to feel that we can help.