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.”

Com­poser, con­duc­tor

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.


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