MLA still gets kick from time as Shumka dancer
Decision to perform at Expo 67 was turning point for troupe, future cabinet minister
Most Albertans know Gene Zwozdesky as the serious, greying, moustached politician who sits on the front benches of the Conservative cabinet. But 40 years ago, he was flying across the stage in Cossack pants, scissoring his legs into split jumps, as a member of Edmonton’s renowned Shumka Dancers.
It may have been more than half a lifetime ago, but it’s a time in his life that he’ll never forget.
“We made friendships that have lasted a lifetime. We travelled together. We rehearsed together three times a week. We partied together. We did everything as a family.
“It was the most unique experience of my life,” says Zwozdesky, now MLA for Edmonton-Mill Creek and deputy government House leader. He will be attending as a VIP audience member when the Shumka Dancers celebrate 50 years with two gala concerts on Thursday and Friday night at the Jubilee Auditorium.
He remembers being in attendance for Shumka’s first performance in Edmonton’s Jubilee auditorium in 1960. “I was sitting in row H and 12 years old at the time,” he recalls. “I was so taken; it exhilarated me to the point that I said ‘I have to be a Shumka dancer.’ ”
Born a third-generation UkrainianCanadian to parents Alec and Anna, Zwozdesky would plead and cry to be driven to dance rehearsals in Edmonton three times a week, a 90-minute drive from his hometown of Sangudo. He moved to Edmonton for grades 11 and 12 to be closer to his Shumka commitments.
He points to Shumka’s participation in Montreal’s Expo 67 — a critical turning point in the group’s history — as pivotal for him as an indi
Shumka celebrates 50 years / D1
“My father, bless his soul, he drove in from Sangudo to attend the meeting to discuss whether Shumka could go to Montreal or not.
“It would cost $11,000 to go, a lot of money at that time, and after hearing all the speeches of why we couldn’t go, he stood up and said: ‘This is so important for our youth to go to Montreal and promote Ukrainian culture to the world. I’m putting $1,000 on the table and if there are 10 more of you in this room who believe in our youth the way that I do, they will go.’
“You have to understand Ukraine was not free at that time, and there was the added necessity to preserve our culture adding emotion to the room.
“By the end of the day, we were going. I will never forget that impassioned speech my father made to motivate the group.”
Even after hanging up his leather dancing boots in 1969, Zwozdesky stayed on as Shumka’s musical director, composer, arranger and conductor for another 25 years. Recognized as a lifetime member by the group, he still advises on their musi- cal selections.
“I have a BA in languages and a BEd in music. I used to be a band teacher, actually, so when you do that, you learn to play all the instruments, although you don’t necessarily master them,” he says modestly.
His main instrument was the piano, but it was through playing bass one night for jazz musician George Blondheim that Zwozdesky met his wife Christine. She also danced with Shumka from 1971 to 1984.
Both their children, Ariana and Myron, have gone on to become Shumka dancers.
The 2009 Shumka dancers will perform on Thursday and Friday at the Jubilee Auditorium.
Tory MLA Gene Zwozdesky, left, and below, performing as a Shumka dancer. Zwozdesky, who fell in love with the group as a boy, moved to Edmonton for his last two years of high school to be closer to his Shumka commitments.