Seventy-five-year-old Mykola Milevsky has a spring in his step as he dances with his partner, 58-year-old Natalia Stolyarenko, in a pedestrian underpass in Kiev.
The chirpy couple has plenty of company. They belong to a group of pensioners that has gathered in the subway every weekend for about 20 years to dance and chat. City authorities allow them to use the unlikely venue because they cannot afford another location for their gatherings.
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"For the elderly, these dances in the subway represent memories of their youth."
As I was passing through a pedestrian subway in central Kiev about twenty years ago, I saw some elderly people dancing. I stopped for a few moments and then went on my way. I was 25 years old at the time and, quite frankly, the story was of no interest to me.
But by pure chance, one evening in early February this year I ended up in the same place and, all of a sudden, I had a completely different attitude to what was going on. What makes about 200 people gather in this passageway on weekends over the course of 20 years and dance for hours on end, I asked myself.
Why gather in the subway? Well, it is actually quite understandable. These old people have no money to rent a spacious room, and the mayor’s office allows them to gather underground instead of giving them any funds to dance indoors.
And why dance? Well probably because it is the most affordable way to while away their spare time.
The main problem faced by the elderly in this country is that they feel unneeded by the state and by the other people around them. The older generation grew up in the Soviet Union and many cannot adjust to a completely different lifestyle or reconcile themselves with the new realities of society.
They don’t understand communication on social networks, but they do still remember the way holidays were celebrated when they were young. Tables laden with food were brought out and neighbours from the same street or house would sit down together and then dance through the night to the tune of an accordion.
For the elderly, these dances in the subway represent memories of their youth. They offer a chance to return to the old times – if only in their thoughts and only for a few hours.
I have noticed that many of them never smile, and even dancing cannot distract them from the gnawing problems of their lives: difficulty understanding their own children, ill health, poverty and the death of loved ones.
The same dances, however, literally transform others. They suddenly appear younger, and hold themselves like royalty with a sparkle in their eyes. For many of them, these meetings are a rare chance to meet people and escape from loneliness after the loss of close friends.
The dancers have known each other for ages; they are friends and celebrate holidays together. Nikolai Milevsky (born in 1938) and Natalya Stolyarchuk (born in 1955) met at these dances and have now lived together for almost five years.
Despite their age, they still have to work because their pensions jointly bring in a mere 4,000 hryvnias ($490) per month. About 20 similar couples have emerged over the 20 years these dances have been taking place.
Just like they did many years ago, young people rush past the party in the subway without stopping. Those in their mid 30s and 40s stand by for a few minutes to take a look. The elderly, on the other hand, stand and watch for a long time before returning next time.