Learning Russian In America

Learning Russian In America

“It’s a plié. You do it on all the positions. It’s very good for dramatic moments.” Anne Ursu

It began with Whitney. She was a ten-year old girl with natural ballet ability who was impeccably trained. My daughter was a nine-year old dancer. “Go to Yuri,” Whitney’s mom said.

Yuri was Yuri Grigoriev, a Russian ballet teacher who taught an intermediate and advanced level adult ballet class. He allowed kids to attend if they could keep up. He spoke only in Russian.

This did not sound like good parenting to me. It was not an experience that would build positive self-esteem. Being taught by someone who did not teach in English with advanced adults in the class was not a recipe for building a good self-image. As far as I knew, if we as parents did not help our kids develop positive self images, they would probably end up on drugs robbing convenience stores.

My daughter became more focused on dance and she found herself in her first class with Yuri. She liked it. The adults were nice and she felt like she was learning. I asked if she understood him. She said yes. “But you don’t speak Russian?” Her reply was that it was not a problem.

Slowly Yuri developed a children’s program and in the years that we were there, I never heard one kid say they did not understand what he was teaching them. I didn’t understand him. I was always asking his wife Alexandra what he was saying. She ran his school and was his English.

He was teaching much more than ballet. Ballet was about movement and because the kids did not understand the words, they focused on watching him demonstrate the movement. They learned to stay in the present moment or they might miss something important. They watched his facial expressions and listened to his tone of voice. They began to use all their senses in communication. They also picked up many Russian words.

His students were developing an understanding of how to obtain knowledge from different cultures. There were things to learn from people who did not speak English. They became educated about the Russian ballet world and the famous Russian ballet dancers both past and present. When dancers came from Russia they would teach a class and pass on their dance knowledge. The dancers came from companies like the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky and the Kirov. These are amazing Russian companies and the students knew a lot about them.  No one taught in English. This had become the norm.

Yuri Grigoriev died suddenly. He now had his own ballet school with many girls. I have driven by it and seen the big sign in the front with his name on it.(http://www.yurigrigoriev.com). I went to the funeral at a Russian Orthodox Church. It was of course in Russian. As usual with Yuri, I didn’t understand the words and I didn’t need to. Many people gave tributes to Yuri in English and in Russian. Many little girls got up tearfully saying he was a second father to them and talked about how much they loved him. I hadn’t seen him in over ten years and was impressed with the school that he and his wife Alexandra had built with hard work and dedication. I asked someone if Yuri had ever learned English. She said no. Yuri took his knowledge, talent and love of dance and turned it into something even more beautiful. He passed it on to future generations and he is a testament to the fact that love and art will always transcend our differences.

Fly safe Yuri


8 thoughts on “Learning Russian In America

  1. Hi Jane,

    I did not know that Ursa has passed. That is so sad. He was a great man and wonderful teacher who could in fact communicate without well not used our language.



    • I called you – maybe you were away or i was somewhere where i left message that didn’t go through. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Great story, and I am forever amazed at the ability of children to see through languages so well ~ everything is open and this allows for creativity. Thus I suppose easier to “understand” languages and learn when young, away from the more rigidity that tends to dominate older minds 🙂
    Great writing, you tell this so well.

    • thanks so much for reading and commenting. I agree about languages but American schools believe that teaching languages before thirteen years old does not work unless you are immersed in the language. i always found that strange.

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