I have waited a very long time to tell this story. It is the memory I hold closest to my heart. But recently I went back to Worldfest and one of the employees, upon hearing me mention how Worldfest had changed my life, encouraged me to write. So here is my story.
It was World Fest, 2002, 11 years ago. I was 15. Wildfire was the hot new coaster, Red Gold Heritage Hall had just opened, and the Fresco Barn served the best Cornish hens I have ever tasted in my life. It seemed like a place where magic could happen. And it did.
But first, you must understand my situation at the time. I had a miserable home life. My parents fought and argued constantly: my mom cried and screamed, my dad broke stuff and cursed everything. It was not a happy place. I was empty and numb, a huge void of emotions, because to feel happiness or joy was to open up to pain and anguish. And no one ever noticed that I was collateral damage of parents at war.
But once in a lifetime something happens that forever splits your life in two: the time before and the time after. For me that something was Kabardinka.
Worldfest brought musicians and dancers from all over the world to share their culture. Who could have known what was about to happen? I was entirely unsuspecting.
When I saw the show by Kabardinka, I had not a clue what Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Elbrus were. I only knew that I had never seen dancing like this before. The women were more gentle than doves, more graceful than ballerinas, drifting as softly as feathers borne on the wind, with movements so effortless that they seemed to float just above the floor, the very picture of feminine beauty and mystery. And as much as the women were soft and beautiful, the men were as wild and fierce, creatures of the mountains straight out of legend. Together they were absolutely the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Every movement, every step, every glance of the eye was timed to perfection. They caught my attention and never let it go, from the moment the first dancing booted foot touched the stage until the last beautiful dancer had disappeared behind the curtain.
I went around in a daze, visions of highlanders and dark-eyed beauties dancing through my head. Dreams of the kind of women wars were fought for and men who would die defending a woman’s honor.Longing for everything my life lacked: integrity, protection, respect, and honor.
Back then there were Closing Ceremonies. All the performers and guests would gather in a big circle and dance around the gazebo as we sang “What a Wonderful World.” To this day I cannot hear that song with a dry eye. “What a Wonderful World” is springtime at Worldfest, the fragrance of flowers after rain, faces I once knew, the first time my heartfelt anything at all. It marks such a sweet memory of such a precious time. After the Closing Ceremonies, I asked to snap a picture with some of the dancers from Kabardinka. Upon learning that I was a dancer too, they oohed and ahhed and asked to see some ballet. As it happened, I was wearing dance sneakers. I did a pretty little curu on my toes and a curtsey. They seemed quite impressed and even applauded. Nothing fancy, nothing special. But that was all it took. From that moment on, despite their very few words of English and my complete lack of Russian, they were my friends and I was their biggest fan.
And by “biggest fan”, I mean, if they had a show, I would be there. 20 times, at least (probably more),over 6 days, 4 different weekends. And by “friends” I mean, whenever they saw me outside of the Hall, they would always break out with huge smiles, wave vigorously, and cry, “Hello, Sarah!” in those thick accents, whether I was in a crowd full of people or just walking in to watch the show. And I would wave back and call, “Privet!” just like they had taught me. When it was time to leave, they would ask, “When are you coming back?” or the broken English equivalent. I can still see it all vividly when I close my eyes, like a video I can turn on at will. And I can clearly recall their faces without the aid of pictures. The memories are so firmly fixed in my mind. Considering I lived in a different state, I really don’t know how I talked my parents into bringing me so often. I asked my mom about it the other day, and her reply was, “Well, at least I always knew where you were.”
My mom had a point. I was always hanging around the dancers, so much so that sometimes other patrons of Worldfest would ask me questions about the group and their culture. And sometimes I could answer. I even ended up playing interpreter a couple of times for those that didn’t speak charades. Communication without words is a skill that has stayed with me to this day.
My friends and I would often go to watch the other shows, wander all over Silver Dollar City, or ride the roller coasters. We loved Wildfire and Thunderation. They taught me their dances and my very first words in Russian. I adored them no end.
Later, when I realized that Kabardinka had toured all over other countries and that some of those dancers who knew me by name and always greeted me with a smile were THE principle dancers of the ensemble, I just couldn’t believe it. Who was I? I was nobody. And yet, while all my world and my parents’ marriage was burning to ashes around me, they were my lifesavers in an ocean of despair.
It was the first time in my life I had ever felt safe. They were the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met. They showed me glimpses of a world beyond the one I was trapped in, the first ray of dawn in my endless dark night. The dancers of Kabardinka saved my life.
I know I will probably never meet any of those dancers again. But that’s okay. They will hold a special place in my heart. Always. Because of them, I have seen the names of my ancestors carved in stone in a Ukrainian cellar, I have drunk pure water from one of the last clean wells on earth, I have international friends all over the world, I can smile without sadness, and dance freely. I have found things worth living for. I speak Russian and a little Ukrainian, I am proud of my Ukrainian Mennonite heritage, and I learned of my great-uncle who was born in Pyatigorsk, about 55 miles from Nalchik, where Kabardinka was from. I have learned to never let language get in the way of kindness, because I know first-hand the value of a smile. I know who I am because of one chance encounter 11 years ago at Worldfest, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri when a handful of dancers from a city in Russia that no one in Arkansas had ever heard of, were kind to a broken 15–year-old girl. To this day their kindness allows me to heal.
If I could ever see them again, I would try to tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart, for saving me from my life, for giving me hope when everything looked hopeless, for showing me goodness when all the other “good” people were passing me by. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of them with overwhelming gratitude, that I don’t wish all the best things for them, that I don’t wonder if they would even remember me at all. Because I will never ever forget them. I learned Russian for this very reason, so I could tell them. Just in case I have the chance someday.
Of all the things I hope to do before I die, at the top is to see Kabardinka perform one more time.