Orphanage Benefit Tonight
Do you remember your first dance lessons? That sensation of twirling, leaping, moving to music? Now think of this: What if you had never been offered the chance to dance? When Ekaterina Shchelkanova, former American Ballet Theatre soloist, asked herself that very question she could not fathom an answer. “I demanded pointe shoes when I was two and a half,” she says. “Even though my parents didn’t really want me to dance, they eventually listened to me and took me to audition for the Vaganova Academy.” But what about children without a mother or father, she thought. “How can someone survive when they have such craving for dance, but no means? Would they be able to go to school? Would anyone listen to them?”
Shchelkanova sat with this thought for a while and then began wondering if there were children out there whom she could help. She set up an appointment to meet with the director of Orphanage #46 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
At the time Shchelkanova visited the orphanage, she was still enjoying her illustrious dance life. Although she had retired from the stage—she had also enjoyed a Hollywood star turn as the The Hunyak in Chicago: The Movie alongside Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones—she had begun a successful career on the other side, mainly as a ballet mistress and teacher with companies like Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and The Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
One visit to Orphanage #46, however, changed all that. “If you went there, you would not sleep for weeks,” Shchelkanova says. “They are like in a little jail.” And her inkling about the children needing to be discovered was right on, too. There were indeed children who wanted the chance to dance—lots of them.
Within months she had set up a charitable foundation called Open World Dance Foundation. She had brought in dance teachers who were excited to work with the children and set up a teacher training session with the directors of American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum to supplement their teaching knowledge and to help them with these children in particular.
The orphanage director noticed immediate changes in their behavior. The children now wanted to hold hands with Shchelkanova when she came to see them (that was big). They smiled more, laughed more, and were generally more happy.
“These children need a hand,” Shchelkanova says. “They need someone who will notice them, who will understand. Yes, they have food and clothes, but that’s not enough.”
Tonight, one boy and three girls from Orphanage #46 are in New York City performing at a benefit for their foundation at Baryshnikov Arts Center (tickets here). Shcheklanova hopes continue to raise funds for Open World Dance Foundation so that she and her team can spread the joy of dancing to more and more children without families around the world. —Kate Lydon