Tamara Chernyakhovska : Encircled by Friends


Tamara Zaika Chernyakhovska was born just after the Second World War in southeastern Ukraine, in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, in Ukraine’s industrial center, then under Soviet rule.  Tamara’s mother, Anastasiya Rubanenko, grew up in Diivka-Kodaky, the oldest part of the Katerinaslav district.  In the early 1930s, as a young woman, she found work in the city of Dnipropetrovsk as a telephone operator. Tamara’s father, Olexa Zaika, was an engineer, employed in an electrical plant in the same city.  His family had come from Bozhedarovka, further south, a district associated historically with the Zaporozhian Sich—Kossack territory.

Wedding Memories

Tamara was just eight when her oldest sister married at eighteen.  The dancing, singing, feasting, and house-to-house visits lasted two weeks and made an indelible impression on her.  The Rubanenko-Zaika family built the traditional bonfire just outside the gate to their home the day of the wedding. Tamara remembers her mother proudly greeting the guests who arrived, and receiving from them the ceremonial “admission fee” they paid in the form of money or gifts for the bride and groom. They would then hop over the bonfire to enter the house.

When the guests reached critical mass, Mrs. Zaika realized it was high time to return to the kitchen to get the dinner under control!  She leaped over the flames, Tamara recalls, and dashed into the kitchen, pulling together a huge feast for the guests in record time.  She was a real Berehinya, Tamara explains, a Ukrainian Supermom.  Like Berehinya (the pre-Christian goddess who protected home and crops), Mrs. Zaika was a wonderful mother and a skilled homemaker who kept these and many other traditions alive within the family.

The wedding featured many different kinds of dancing—each generation had their favorites.  Tamara remembers aunts, uncles, and family friends dancing “city social dances” like the polka, the karapeth, or the nareychinka—graceful couples dances that mixed ballroom style with folk elements.  Couples and individual dancers could also show off their best moves in solos and duets inside a kolo (circle of dancers).  The older generation—mostly the grandfathers—hopped, jumped, and kicked their heels in the hopakpresyatka, or kozachok, dances characteristic of Zaporozhia and central Ukraine.

Tamara recalls her paternal grandfather dancing in this Kossack style—not too strenuously, for by then he was already in his 60s.  The up-and-down motions reminded her of a rider on a horse.  Other men would take a turn at this, in a friendly competition that might last for 10 or 20 minutes.  The wedding was a very special occasion, Tamara says, but music and dance were also part of everyday life in her home and neighborhood, all year round.

“All of my relatives, all of the friends of my parents, all of them cared about tradition, you know?  Always we would do events together, always there would be food, singing, and dance.  Dance was second place after song.  My Mom, my Dad, my godmother, their friends, they were always dancing and singing.  I think it was natural.  It was normal.”   On cold winter nights, dancing and singing passed the time. Tamara’s mother also sang long, sad Ukrainian love ballads while she was sewing—songs which Tamara can still sing today.

The Closest of Friends (and Neighbors)

Two generations before, both sides of the Rubanenko-Zaika family had lived in the Ukrainian countryside, but by the time Tamara and her two older sisters were born, the family had adapted to life in Dnipropetrovsk. Neighborhood friendship networks—kumushky–were essential to survival.  Tamara’s family photo album contains dozens of photographs of her parents, their siblings, and their friends, huddled together affectionately, posing for the camera, in clothing and hairstyles—suits, uniforms, dresses, skirts, blouses, crewcuts, updos—that date the photos according to recognizable global fashion trends.  Photographs from the previous generation, though, capture the embroidered blouses, accessories, and dress styles more characteristic of southeastern/central Ukrainian rural dwellers.

Tamara’s parents’ neighborhood friendship network was a multicultural group, composed of about 10 families—Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Jewish, Christian–who “worked together, socialized together, and studied together.”  Free expression of religion was limited at the time but Tamara, whose family was Christian, recalls reading the Bible out loud in private to her grandmother and other older people, when she was a child.  The kumushky had ways of cooperating that made hard times more bearable, and good times better.

Tamara recalls neighbors and family gathering together to share food with each other when food was scarce. Women working at the telephone company devised their own creative solutions to childcare.  Friends on the first shift would leave children—even nursing babies—with a friend on the second shift, who would care and even co-nurse, if need be, until her own shift began.  When the first shift mothers got home they would switch off, and do the same for their friends’ babies.  Children co-nursed this way grew up together as friends, referring to each other as my “milk sister” or “milk brother” (moluchny brat).  The children of the kumushkygrew up closely bonded and aware of their parents’ explicit agreements to care for each other’s families should anything happen to any one of the adults.

Destined to Dance

From age six onward, Tamara remembers “performing shows” with friends—complete with costume, songs, and dancing–for her parents, relatives, and friends at house parties.  What seemed like no more than childish fun became, by the time she was fourteen, a ticket into the most competitive theater and dance school in Dnipropetrovsk.  After four days of testing and auditioning in 1961, Tamara found out that she had gained admission to the Glinka State School of Theater Arts.

She would spend the next four years there earning her diploma as a professional choreographer and dancer.  For the first two years she studied many dance forms–classical ballet, jazz, and character dance (folk dance adapted for stage performance).  She also learned other theater arts—production, costume design, and direction.  Later in the program, along with some thirty other students, she was permitted to specialize in choreography and international folk dance.

After graduation in 1965 she began the life of a professional dancer, first for the State Folk Ensemble of Ukraine, based in Cherkasy (1965-1986) and, later, for the G. G. Veriovka National Dance Company of Kyiv (1971-1986).  For the next two decades Tamara enjoyed performing on stage throughout the Soviet Union, and she toured internationally, traveling through Spain, Brazil, and Portugal to Mexico, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and the Canary Islands.

She particularly valued summers doing fieldwork all over Ukraine with both companies, and a number of famous choreographers and composers who served as her teachers. The dancers, orchestra, and choir members in these companies traveled across rural Ukraine to put on shows.  While visiting a particular region, the company’s choreographers and composers doubled as ethnographers, arranging for the company to meet with elder dancers, who would share regional folk dances with them.

The young dancers and musicians would sketch the elder dancer’s movements or transcribe the accompanying songs/tunes into their notebooks.  Later, directors and performers would work together to adapt these folk dance forms for the stage.  The elder teachers would be invited to the rehearsals, too, to critique the company’s adaptations of what they had shared.  Tamara remembers traveling in two big trucks out to farmland, where her company would set up a stage right in the middle of the field, to perform for farm workers.

Love and Family

Sometimes cameramen would come along to capture the elder dancers’ movements on a Kino Camera.  The Kino Camera was an early European movie camera manufactured by Zeiss Ikon, used for filming for television.  By the seventies, Tamara’s company was working more frequently with film crews for televised government productions.  This is how Tamara Zaika met Pavlo Chernyakhovsky—a pioneer in the film and television industry.

He courted Tamara for two years, waiting for her to return from her long international tours, and proposed.  The couple married and became parents to a son, Dmitri.  Like her mother before her, Tamara kept right on working after her son’s birth.  “I took only a few weeks off after Dmitri was born,” Tamara laughs, “No more than two months or so, because I didn’t want to lose my place in my company!”  To manage, Tamara’s mother pitched in to care for Dmitri during Tamara’s longer tours and the couple hired a nanny to help out.


The year 1992 was a crisis year for the Chernyakhovsky family.  Ukraine was in the midst of political upheaval after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and having declared its independence, and Pavlo was seriously ill with heart disease.  Dmitri was a teenager.  The couple’s circle of friends in Kyiv pitched in to raise funds to help the family get to the United States, where Pavlo could have surgery, but he didn’t make it.  Friends in the United States invited the grieving mother and son to come to New York nevertheless.  They left Ukraine grateful for new opportunities, but with a heavy sense of loss.

Friends again assisted Tamara to find work, at The Westchester Ballet and in Riverdale, where she was hired immediately as a dance instructor.  Dmitri remained homesick for Ukraine for the next two years, but Tamara encouraged him to enroll at the City College of New York, where he studied media technology.  While still a student, he found a job like his father’s–working as a video/media technician for the college, a position which he holds to this day.

Enlarging the Circles:  Teaching Ukrainian Dance in New York

The rest is a slice of New York Ukrainian dance history.  Tamara was delighted to find that one dance company gladly recommended her to another, all over metropolitan New York, and over the years she has taught Ukrainian folk dance and many other dance forms to children all over the five boroughs.  She founded her own dance group, the Holubka Ensemble, to perform Ukrainian folk dance at festivals and other engagements.

The group is composed of children and adults from some of the many dance classes she has developed and taught at multiple venues—at city public schools and community centers, in Ukrainian and Russian churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and now with The Center for Traditional Music and Dance and its Ukrainian Wave Community Cultural Initiative.  Tamara teaches Ukrainian folk dance at CTMD’s vechornytsi (village dance party) programs in Brooklyn and the East Village.

The vechornytsi recreates the spirit of traditional Ukrainian village dance parties—the kind Tamara’s mother would have attended before she got married. Unmarried Ukrainian girls would gather in the homes of older women to embroider clothes for the coming year; boys would arrive at the door with musical instruments, and a dance would ensue, under the watchful eye of the mistress of the house.  There would be food and drink, courting, singing, and other forms of fun.

Tamara describes the vechornytsi as an exchange.  It is this aspect of informal learning—whether it’s joining in a song, trying out a new dance, exchanging stories, acquiring a new recipe, catching up on local news—that she hopes to continue to preserve while teaching Ukrainian folk dance in these programs.

Tamara’s family circle has expanded as well.  Remarried recently to artist Yury Parshenov, she enjoys spending time with her son Dmitri, his wife Alla, and her granddaughter Anastasia (who already dances in her grandmother’s Holubka Ensemble), and with Yury’s son Misha, wife Margaret, and their daughter Lily, who plays the piano and the violin.  In this way Tamara has passed much of the music, dance, song, and caring companionship her parents and friends so appreciated along to two more generations, and out into an ever-widening circle of friends in New York who wish to learn what she has to teach.

Tamara will be teaching Ukrainian folk dance at CTMD’s next Vechornytsi starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, February 26th at the Brooklyn Ukrainian Restaurant (1223 Avenue U between E. 12th Street and Homecrest, take Ave U stop off the Q train).  Join us for a tasty buffet dinner and an evening of Ukrainian dance, music, and song!  (See listing in this issue of Global Beat of the Boroughs E-Newsletter.)