Hi, my name is Steve, and I am a lucky man. In October of 2008, and for the first time in my life, I got to really witness how much just one dance could impact the entire life of a human being. My life has never been the same since.
It wasn't a typical Oklahoma Saturday. No. It was a game day. OU vs. Kansas. And I wasn’t going to miss another big victory, not even a second of it. That’s why I left Oklahoma City three hours early to beat traffic and enjoy tailgating on campus with other OU aficionados. But first, I had a little stop to make.
My nephew had a friend in Norman named Peter who wanted the game tickets. His wife, had never seen a real game before. I couldn’t believe that she’d never felt the energy of thousands of OU fans charging with the commanding “Oooo” and
exploding with the powerful “Uuuu”. Thanks to my family, I always had extra game tickets and at that time, I felt it was my duty as a proud Oklahoman to convert another family to become Sooner fans.
The traffic was worse than ever plus Peter lived quite a distance from campus.So the ticket delivery procedure needed to be efficient. Plus I was already getting agitated by the slow drivers around me.The door opened and I was greeted by a beautiful lady with the warmest smile I’ve ever seen. “Hi, I’m Yulia.” She shook my hand and gave me a hug. That immediately cured my traffic agitation. I stepped into a living room where I heard familiar classical music playing from the stereo. I immediately lightened up and introduced myself. “I’m Steve.”“Welcome, Steve!” said Yulia with a thick accent. I asked Yulia in English, where she was from but she just smiled again and said something in another language.
“It’s Russian, Steve, thank you for coming!” Peter entered the room. Another Russian hug, and I was escorted to an already prepped dinner table. I knew I needed to get to campus as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to be rude
either. Plus I’m always up for trying different ethnic foods. I looked around the room and it felt like being in a hall of fame museum. On the walls were posters with Peter and Yulia: movies, music concerts, theatre,ballets. I was overwhelmed; a million questions popped up in my head, but those questions would have to wait, the game was in an hour. Peter said the blessing, and after the powerful Amen, Yulia brought the first Russian dish they made for me, called Okroshka. It was like a super healthy salad mixed with buttermilk and sparkling water. Okroshka tasted amazing!
After asking for seconds, the Pas De Deux from the Nutcracker started playing, and I love that piece. “Tchaikovsky, our countryman” said Peter, smiling. He must have noticed my excited reaction after the first two measures of arpeggios. Peter picked up a pencil and started conducting the piece. That got Yulia all excited. She stood up and started speaking Russian really fast.
“Steve, would you like to see how it’s performed on stage?” Peter asked me. “What do you mean?” I got a little confused.
“You’ll see.” During the next minute, I witnessed a magical transformation of a five month pregnant woman with a heavy belly into a graceful ballerina, as light as a feather, whose technical performance seemed so free and easy. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was radiant and so charming. She put me in awe! Then came the solos from the Swan Lake, the Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote and
some other ballets I’ve never even heard of. “How do you know and remember all those parts from all those ballets?” I asked Yulia.
“She’s a prima ballerina” said Peter. A Russian Prima – to me that sounded so big and important. "Odin moment.” said Yulia raising her index finger.“One moment, she’ll explain.” added Peter.
Yulia ran to another room for a few seconds and came back with a little bag. She revealed the funny looking shoes with flat tips, which I guess must have been the pointe shoes. She continued talking in Russian, while putting them on. Peter
was interpreting: “After hard working years of performing in a lead position within a National Theatre, a Russian Prima must have expertise in at least 10 top ballets in the world, knowing choreography for each lead performer as well as corps-de-ballet.
“The group dancers” added Peter.“So who keeps track of that knowledge? In other words who selects you or awards
you that high of a rank?” I asked. “It’s not as easy as it sounds.” said Yulia, trying to smile. She swallowed as if it was bringing some long memories. At that moment, from looking in her eyes I felt as if a hard and intensive journey was flashing in her mind.
“You have to be recognized by top leaders in the ballet industry and be appointed by both, a theatre director and a chief choreographer.” said Peter. “A people must love you dance!” said Yulia in English and jumped on top of her toes. She then put another CD in the player. “Coppelia, my favorite.” I’ve never seen a person’s feet move the way I saw Yulia do it. Sure, I watched ballets before, but never a few feet away from me. Plus the fact that it was a pregnant woman fluttering like a bird would not justify in my mind. No wonder she was a Prima. I never thought before how powerful a dance could be. I wanted to hear her story; I wanted to know her blessing. For the next thirty minutes, over Russian pancakes and tea, I listened to a heartbreaking story of a world renowned ballerina - Yulia Zhmutski.
As she told me of her journey, filled with struggle, determination, emotion and success, it brought tears to my eyes. It was a choice of a lifetime, for a ten year girl to leave home in order to live, breathe and learn dancing for eight years at the National Ballet Academy in Uzbekistan, former Soviet Union. It must have been such a challenging experience, such a roller coaster for this Russian dancer who rose from poverty to success; who early in life overcame rejections by egotistic dance industry figures and those who were really jealous; a dancer who eventually achieved acceptance and praise by the famous dance critics, her fans, the international media and even the President. “Steve, are we going to the game?” asked Peter. “Sure.” I smiled and pulled out the tickets. I looked at the clock. We were late but surprisingly I didn’t panic. I felt that this special day had left a blissful imprint, a delightful ballerina touch in my heart, and I knew that my acquaintance with the Zhmutski’s was just the beginning of a lifelong friendship and artistic journey.
The next six months I spent skiing and traveling. The Zhmutski’s and I kept in touch and our friendship grew. To my big surprise I started picking up dance magazines and saving articles about ballet I’d find in the national press. I found that when doing normal day-to-day activities I wanted to learn more about multicultural ways of expression. I went through my calendar over and over,
counting days to come back to Oklahoma, so I could visit my new “Russki” friends again. I wish we had more families like that, I thought, with such an inspiring passion and creative synergy between the two artistic people. It is such a blessing when two spouses can complete each other like that and motivate others.
I called Peter in May and said I was coming over. I hinted in a not so subtle way that I wanted to learn more about dance. Peter said that I was in for a big surprise as he and Yulia were hosting a multicultural evening for family and friends. I made sure to clear my whole day, so I could dedicate my total attention and immerse my mind into the artistic realm which was still a little
new to me.
Finally, the day had come. At first I got to play with just two month old Julia,a brand new addition to the Zhmutski’s family. I loved crawling on the floor, making funny faces to make the baby laugh. Then I got to try Borsch, my second Russian dish. It was like a maroon colored soup with tons of vegetables and the most tender meat that melted my mouth. After dinner, the other guests and
myself moved into the living room to begin the evening. Peter dimmed the lights and asked us to close our eyes. The audio speakers filled the room with a cadence of native instruments and a mixture of percussion sounds. To the vigorous rhythm of the drums I heard a clanging noise. It sounded like some hanging little beads or coins colliding in a perfect beat like the maracas would. Without waiting for my cue I opened my eyes and froze in awe.
In front of us was Yulia, dressed in a professional belly dance costume, shaking her way towards the middle of the living room. Every one of those little coins on her hip scarf were completely in sync, executing the routine in perfect unison with the dancer and the music. I never thought of a human body capable of such twisting, almost like contorting, but in the most elegant and charming way. The exotic nature of the dance was quite mesmerizing. I’ve never seen talent like this before.
Yulia’s fingers, neck, hair, eyes, wrists and ever her eyebrows – everything was a part of the dance. Wow! From a graceful ballerina to a charismatic belly dancer, and both times with such a flawless execution. And even though it was for an audience of family
and friends and not the crowds of a national theatre, Yulia, a fully dedicated artist, was the most joyful performer I’ve ever seen. That truly was happiness in motion. I felt this phenomena needed a powerful outlet- a way to share this bliss with others.
For a moment I had a captivating thought. What if everybody learned to dance that way? I bet people would never fight again; kids would become more disciplined, more free-spirited, artistic, finally happy. I bet thousands of households would be filled with harmony and creative spirit. I bet people would start appreciating and complimenting each other more often, saving relationships
and marriages. The world would become a much better place if people could learn to be happy and expressive through the art of dance. Yulia bowed. We clapped and demanded an encore. After a few folk dances from various cultures performed to educate us, I couldn’t stop sharing my thoughts and emotions about Yulia’s talents and the cultural experience.
For the next month Peter and I put our minds together and created a plan to open the school of dance and name it after little Julia. After all, it is all about our children, our future and inspiration.
In July of 2009, in Norman, Oklahoma we started Julia’s Academy of InternationalDance. The studio began its operation with only three students and one instructor – Yulia. In just one year, and two recitals, more than one hundred students would have taken classes at Julia’s. By 2011 that number tripled, and the Academy expanded to open Julia’s learning center, teaching 29 performing
arts disciplines with nine instructors and four staff members.
Today, Julia’s Academy of International Dance keeps growing, changing people’s lives and inspiring artists across the world.
I still remember that October day of 2008, when I came to convert one Russian family to become football fans. Funny thing, I was converted to become a strong advocate for dance, a devoted fan of Yulia Zhmutski and most important - just a
much happier person.