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He's been dancing with an eagle for 36 years

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He's been lacing them up every Thursday night for the past 36 years, but Brad Richliwski admits there was a time when he resented his beloved red boots for standing between him and Bobby Hull.

It was the early '70s and the Winnipegger, like many of his North End peers, spent every Friday night learning to bust Cossack moves on Main Street, at the Ukrainian National Federation School of Dance.

"Our family had season tickets to the Jets, and half the games were on Friday night," he recalls. "What am I doing? Going Ukrainian dancing instead of going to see my favourite player."

He got over it. In fact, Richliwski, 51, is pretty sure he's the oldest Ukrainian dancer in the city still performing regularly.

The advertising account executive is definitely the senior member of the Orlan Ukrainian Folk Ensemble, a volunteer-run, performing dance troupe a young medical student started in 1975 to promote and preserve his heritage and give budding dancers like Richliwski a place to hone their skills.

"We didn't think it would take on a life of its own, but we're delighted that it did," says Taras Babick, 60, who now has decades of doctoring, dance instruction and choreographing under his belt.

What started as a hobby became a way of life for the family physician and father of two, whose adult offspring -- his daughter, 33, is currently doing her own medical residency -- dance in the group. His wife designs and maintains a huge costume wardrobe.

Babick was teaching Ukrainian dance back in the '70s when he decided to create Orlan to give budding young performers like Richliwski a platform to showcase their skills. Turns out his fledgling group lived up to its name.

"An orlan is a young eagle in Ukrainian," he says, "and we thought that someday this young eagle might soar. Well, it's a mature eagle now."

Orlan, which at its peak had 60 dancers ranging in age from 16 to 40, has been around the world -- the United States, Hong Kong, China and Ukraine -- to show off its fiery hopak and its frenzied hutsul. The dancers performed at Vancouver's Expo '86 and at both Disneyland and Disney World. They did 18 shows at Florida's Epcot Center one year. They've never missed a Folkorama in the multicultural festival's 42-year history, and are the only performing group with perfect attendance at Winnipeg's Teddy Bears' Picnic, which just had its 26th anniversary.

"We've danced in the rain, on lawns with big holes in them, in concrete parking lots, on the streets and in an opera house in Kyiv," says Richliwski, who met his first girlfriend in Orlan, and later danced with her daughter, as well.

His closest friends to this day originated in the group, he says, and he has no plans to hang up his red boots in the near future, Friday Jets games or not.

Orlan's days of three-week overseas tours may be over, Babick says, but its mission to celebrate and share Ukrainian culture through dance continues, full steam ahead. (Mark your calendars: Folklorama runs Aug. 5-18.)

After all, the 24-member troupe has a repertoire of more than 40 dances and wardrobe of more than 400 costumes and props.

"We're volunteers," says Babick, "No one is paid, no one does this for a living, and so people don't need to come to practice because it's their job. The only reason they do come is because they enjoy it."

As for the mid-air splits and double kicks Richliwski used to pull off effortlessly, performance after performance?

"I could probably still do it, but to do them the same way I did 20 years ago, I might need some notice," he says, "and some vitamins and prayers."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J16

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