Sitka’s New Archangel Dancers celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, making the group officially the oldest all-female Russian dance troupe in the United States, and still kicking.
Light shines on a bright red curtain as people file in to the hall to sit in neat rows. Traditional Russian music plays, with a little crackle, from the loudspeaker. Then silence. The lights dim and a woman, adorned in gold and red comes out on stage.
“I want you to imagine, even though it’s summery outside, the stage has become a wintery plain,” she says. “There are two neighbors who haven’t seen each other all winter and they’re about to meet on the road. This is Troika.”
She’s announcing the first of many dances for today’s performance by the New Archangel Dancers. It’s one of, if not the oldest Russian dance troupe in the United States, and none of the dancers are Russian. And they’re all women.
Karen Grussendorf is one of the founding mothers of the troupe, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. She moved to Sitka with her late husband Ben in 1967, at a time when the town was expanding. But still, she needed a creative outlet.
“Ben would go hunting on Friday night and he wouldn’t come back until Sunday night,” Grussendorf says. “And I had a two year old, and I was like ‘Okay, now what am I going to do?'”
So she started trying out for musicals. In that process she met other women who were interested in dance. They started dancing: Scottish highland dancing at first with some local pipe players. Then they thought they’d form a dance troupe celebrating dances around the world. Curious about Russian dancing, they met with the bishop of Sitka’s Russian Orthodox Church.
“We made an appointment to see Bishop Theodosious,” Grussendorf says. “He got quite excited about the idea and he gave us two vinyl records and a book of children’s dances and then some basic directions as to how some of these folk dances should be done.”
Grussendorf says the bishop helped them as they pieced together the different dances, but he never demonstrated a single kick or turn.
“We would do something– we would show him how we thought it should go. He’d say ‘No, that’s not quite right.’ But he wouldn’t get up and dance,” she laughs.
The bishop convinced them to focus solely on Russian dancing, and to name the troupe New Archangel. The group got off the ground in 1969, when the first cruise ships were arriving in Sitka.
“It started with a couple of shows in 1969, and it’s evolved into well over a hundred shows a season,” says Linda Speerstra, the group’s current dance director. She says every fall the New Archangel Dancers opens up for auditions. Then through a learning group, which meets once a week, they learn the dance repertoire.
“That learning group normally just forges this bond that’s like inseparable. They’re going to be friends for life,” says Speerstra. “It’s almost like going through kindergarten to 12th grade with this buddy. You’re just, like, hand-in-hand the whole time.”
New dancers spend months carefully learning dances. Meanwhile the performing group is rehearsing the entire repertoire of over 40 dances from four regions of Eastern Europe. And learning the big jumps and moves like Schepak, that are really challenging. Speerstra shows a picture where she’s demonstrating the schepak- she’s squatted down, her knees parallel, kicking out one leg at a time with arms folded in front.
“That is a very well-known Russian move. Schepak is definitely one of those signature moves, along with big jumps,” she says.
One of their current “big jumpers” is Gina Newkirk. She can jump high and pull herself into a mid-air split. But she says learning schepak was tough.
“That particular trick has been my wall to get over since I started. I finally got it this year. Some of those dances are really, really difficult,” says Newkirk. “Like ‘Sailor,’ that’s a lot of tapping and fast movements, and it’s difficult. I would love to get it some day. I got my schepak, now if I can just do those sailor taps.”
Many dancers stick with the group for decades, but Russian dance, with all of its kicking and tapping and jumping, is physically demanding. So the group keeps a mandatory retirement age. Grussendorf danced with the troup for 23 years. And she says retirement is a good thing.
“Even though some dancers could go on- it’s hard on your legs, it’s hard on your knees, it’s hard on your back. It’s a real good thing.”
And there’s another restriction too: No men. Speerstra says that wasn’t originally the plan, but a little rejection from local men at the start led the women to forge ahead
“When the group first formed, they asked the men to join the group. They were like wouldn’t this be fun to dance in your spare time. The men sort of hemmed and hawed and they looked at their women and said we did not come to Sitka to dance. We’re here for the hunting and the fishing and the great outdoors.” But Speerstra says that didn’t discourage the women.
“Our strong founding mothers said, you know, we’re just going to move ahead without them.”
It’s a story they tell at every show. The dancers are performing their 50th summer season in Sitka, proving the group has staying power. And for the 50th anniversary, Grussendorf says over 70 planned to travel from out of town to celebrate and reconnect with fellow dancers, to “Troika” their way to another half-century of friendship.