Dmitry Rusak with Diane MacKenzie win first place silver level at the Grand Ballroom Competition in Richmond on June 23, 2012. (photo from Dmitry Rusak)
Crimea may seem an unlikely place to embark on a journey into the world of competitive dance, but that is exactly where Dmitry Rusak discovered his passion and launched an international career.
Rusak, a local ballroom and Latin dance instructor, was born and raised in the city of Sevastopol. He began ballroom dance lessons at the age of 7 after a well-known (Jewish) dance instructor and his wife had moved into town and opened a dance school. Rusak’s father – a ballroom dancer himself – encouraged the young boy to take lessons. By the age of 10, Rusak was hooked. He decided to forgo other interests, such as soccer and swimming, in order to commit to dance. He hasn’t looked back.
Rusak’s first dance partner was a girl named Helena. She would bus an hour each way to attend lessons at the school. When they were 10 years old, the pair started to travel around the former Soviet Union to compete in both ballroom and Latin dance. They danced together for approximately five years, progressing through the different divisions and often placing first. They also competed in formation dance, a style of ballroom dance that is characterized by eight couples shadow dancing in a formation team. In fact, Rusak’s first international competition was in formation dance, which took him to Germany at the age of 17.
After high school, Rusak served his two years of mandatory military service as a dancer in the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Black Sea Fleet. The troupe focused on national dance so, when traveling abroad to perform, Rusak was given special dispensation to join his former partners from the Sevastopol dance school to compete in ballroom dance.
After completing his army service, Rusak made plans to move to Israel in search of better opportunities than those that existed in Crimea. He made aliyah at 21 and describes it as an easy process. Although he missed his family, the transition was facilitated by his connection to a Jewish Moldovan dance instructor with a studio in Bat Yam.
Rusak settled in Holon, integrated into the dance community and partnered with a dancer named Viktoria, also originally from Crimea – the two were already acquainted from having competed against each other in earlier years. They married three years after becoming dance partners and, by this time, Rusak’s parents and brother had joined him in Israel.
Rusak lived in Israel for 15 years. During that time, he and his dance partners were Israel’s reigning champions in ballroom, Latin and Ten Dance (waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, tango and Viennese waltz, along with rumba, samba, paso doble, cha-cha-cha and jive). He competed internationally for many years, including in Holland, France and Germany, and won prizes and accolades at each turn.
Rusak had a studio in Rishon LeZion, where he taught ballroom dance to approximately 100 students of all ages, from young children to septuagenarians.
In 2010, Rusak and his wife decided to move to Canada. The financial crisis of 2008 had taken a toll on the viability of the dance studio and Rusak was keen to take his skills elsewhere. The couple also was tired of the matzav, or situation, and wanted to raise their children somewhere more peaceful. Laughing, Rusak added that they found Israel’s climate “too hot” and struggled to adapt because “the mentality is so different.”
The couple settled in Burnaby, where they have family. Since their arrival, Rusak has been teaching group and private lessons at dance studios in Burnaby and Vancouver, including at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver (JCCGV).
For the past three years, Jewish community members Aron and Neri Tischler have been taking ballroom and Latin dance lessons with Rusak at the JCCGV. The couple, married for almost 34 years, was motivated to take group lessons because they “thought it would be fun to have a regular date night and learn something new together.” When they discovered that they “really enjoyed Dmitry’s lessons, dancing with one another, and wanted to get better,” they decided to take private lessons as well, to “ensure couple time and improve our dancing.”
Neri Tischler said Rusak “breaks down the steps so well that even the clumsiest person can catch on!” Moreover, she added, the women in her class refer to the lesson as “therapy” because it “takes you out of everything that is going on in your life, forces you to focus on the beat of the music, the steps and your partner, and just be in the moment, which is pure joy.”
Rusak’s dance skills are varied. He choreographs wedding dances for couples and teaches ballroom and Latin dance to students of all ages and abilities, including those in wheelchairs. In addition to private and group lessons for adults, his plans for the fall include ballroom dance classes for children as well as for women interested in participating in pro-am (professional-amateur) competitions across Canada. He prides himself on working to meet the different goals and needs of various students, including improving strength, endurance, coordination, posture and sense of rhythm. He believes that “being active and able to perform meaningful dance movements to different musical rhythms is necessary for the harmonious and balanced development of a person and their dance skills.”
Rusak described life in Canada as “great” and reserved special accolades for Vancouver’s Jewish community, who “welcomed us here and helped us to get settled.” He enjoys teaching at the JCCGV for two main reasons, he said. First, he recognizes the influence of his Jewish dance instructors on his career and he is eager to share his skills and passion with members of the Jewish community. Second, he is impressed by the level of commitment of his students at the community centre, many of whom he has taught for several years – their skills will be on display at the Dena Wosk School of Performing Arts year-end show on June 5.
Alexis Pavlich is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.