How A Dance Study Abroad Trip to Russia Changed My...

How A Dance Study Abroad Trip to Russia Changed My Life


Why could I not have stayed longer? You made it so hard to say goodbye. Before the trip, we had to have a meeting with a lady from the MTSU Study Abroad program and she said we may get homesick, but we may also get “homesick” when we returned to the States.

That is exactly what happened to me. I try to not think of my trip at all or look through my camera roll because I will start to break down and cry since I miss it so much. This is hard for me to type. Yes, I know that Russia is no place to settle down or live, but there is still something in me that will always long to be there. Maybe I only loved it because of the amazing experience I got, but that was the best first impression I have ever received.

MTSU Dance students Megan Manning, Savannah Cook and Natasja Hall taking a Moscow River tour with professor Meg Brooker on a study abroad trip. Photo submitted.

MTSU dance students Megan Manning, Savannah Cook and Natasja Hall take a Moscow River tour with professor Meg Brooker on a study-abroad trip. (Photo submitted)

I was given an opportunity to go to Moscow, Russia, from May 9 to May 22, 2019, with my professor, Meg Brooker, and two other peers of mine. We were invited to be a part of a dance festival that was in honor of Isadora Duncan at RUDN University by the loving Valentina Ryazanova. In preparation for the festival, my peers came together a week and a half before we left to learn five dances that our talented professor taught us and was choreographed by Ms. Duncan, the “Mother of Modern Dance.”

This week and a half was a dream in itself. We would come in every morning and just dance for up to five hours and learn this beautiful, meaningful and awe-striking choreography that has been passed down, and have what felt like a one-on-one dance class with our incredible and insightful professor. I learned so much, and it seemed as though I got a taste of what it would be like to be in a touring dance company. Meg not only did a phenomenal job at teaching us this breathtaking choreography but also teaching us about the history of Isadora Duncan and Russia.

Then we took off. We went from Nashville to New York, then from New York to Finland, and finally from Finland to Moscow. When we landed, we were greeted by a kind-hearted student from RUDN University. We drove straight to the university, and if I recall correctly, I slept for most of the drive there. That first day was kind of a blur because of jet lag, but we did get to see a bit of the university, met Valentina and checked into our hotel, a guest room in the dormitory on the 16th floor. We originally wanted to go explore a little bit, but we ended up sleeping the rest of the day away. The second day, we had tea with Valentina and a handful of students from the university, rehearsed our dances, then explored the Red Square. I also experienced the famous and spectacular Moscow Metro for the first time, and if there is anything in that city that makes it a city, it is the Metro and the people on the Metro. Every stop was unique in its own way, and I easily could have had my face pushed up against the window like a toddler looking at the beautiful walls and light fixtures, but there is this silent rule that everyone who lives in the city seems to know and as a tourist you ultimately decide to follow along: Blending in. Becoming invisible. When I first became aware of this silent rule, which was pretty quickly, it saddened me. As I sat there “blending in,” I felt as though I was just another human just going through my day just like everyone else. So boring. You start to forget about the beauty that surrounds you, but then, the more and more we went on the Metro and I observed the people going on and off, I found how not boring it was. It truly is what made you feel like you were a part of a huge, beautiful city — that YOU lived there, and that YOU were living or visiting in such a beautiful city, and you were just minding your own business. You would see every generation in one car on the Metro, some reading, some scrolling through their phones, a few holding on to their loved ones (sometimes a little too close), and a handful of people giggling with a close friend. So although you had to become “invisible,” there was never a dull moment on the Metro.

When we got off that first Metro ride, we entered a whole new world: the center, the Red Square. We walked around, saw the Bolshoi, St. Basil’s, all of it. We took lots of pictures in front of these sites, went into the GUM mall, and ate our first meal in Russia. I could talk for forever about the food. Do not get me started! I have known a Russian family for quite a while, and if there was anything I knew about the culture already, it was the food. I had already experienced most of the food that I would end up eating there, but it never grew old. I love food, can’t you tell? Food, food, food! Oh, but the Russian food. There is something about me and the Russian food, and I still do not know specifically what it is, but I LOVE it. There are blinis, or crepes; borscht, the traditional Russian beet soup; pumpkin or squash soup; greshka, a buckwheat type of cereal or porridge; tomato and cucumber salads; Russian ice cream; khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread; the Georgian food, the fresh fish, all the pastries, and dates from Iran. Yes, that is a long list, but you can only get these foods like that there! Or it just tastes better because I am there. I do not know, but it was and is something I will never forget.

The next two days were hard but will be an experience I treasure forever. I am getting teary-eyed just typing it. During these two days, I got a taste of what it was like to be in a dance company. The first day was more of a group experience in a studio for everyone to join in and take a couple of classes, a few of us performed, and there was a lecture, all in honor of Isadora. It felt unreal being there — the beautiful white walls with windows and mirrors on the third floor looking over Moscow, everyone in costume watching each other with such interest. Most of us didn’t speak the same language, but when we danced, we all seemed to understand. When we each danced it was not a competition but an exchange of movement. Of course, the dances were challenging but it felt as though we all got lost enjoying and appreciating what Isadora started.

The second day of performing was in the theater. It felt like more like a recital but with more respect and appreciation behind it. You had to be on time for everything and do everything right, very professional. Although it was stressful, there was a joy the whole day that killed the stress and other negative thoughts because we all loved what we were doing and knew that we may only get this opportunity once. At the end of the show, during the curtain call, Valentina presented a few of us with diplomas that had our name on it and a photo of Isadora. I felt so honored! After the show ended, I was trying to leave the stage to our dressing room and an older Russian lady came up to me and started speaking to me in Russian. I don’t know exactly what she said and never will, but I could tell she was complimenting me, and I felt as though I could understand her just by her facial expressions. It made my heart soar. She had left and then came back again complimenting me over and over, and all I knew to say was “thank you” in Russian. I will never forget that moment. The rest of that night we talked with many people, and there was definitely an exchange that we had that night, even with the language barrier.

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The rest of our time in Moscow consisted of us taking dance classes, being tourists and catching up with a few of Meg’s amazing friends she had made over the years there. Two friends she had us meet with a couple of times were Irena and Roger. Oh, how I miss them. I did not even know how to introduce them with only written words. They managed, within the little time we were with them, to make it seem as though they were your grandparents that you have always known and you could tell them anything. They were both so brilliant. Irena was born and raised in Moscow, and Roger was born in England. They fell in love and are living their best life. They lived in quite a large apartment for the normal-sized apartments in Russia because of socialism during the Soviet Union. It was so quaint, so European, so Russian, and I loved it. They invited us to their apartment two different times, once with both of them and once with just Roger, since Irena was on a train to St. Petersburg. I know this is a bit sidetracked, but something I love about the Russian people is how hospitable they are. Or maybe it’s the way they do it that I love so much. It is ALWAYS with food, and they HAVE to serve you everything, no matter how small or big it is. In my mind, that is how you host guests. This was how Irena and Roger were: the moment we walked into their apartment they went from “Hello! Hello! How are you?” to “Come eat!” She had made some pumpkin soup with a pumpkin her mom had grown in her village, along with cheese and bread, homemade pickles and, of course, tea. Have I mentioned how much I love it? I pray I have the opportunity to visit again. The next time we visited, it was only with Roger, but it was a wonderful evening. He made us some traditional food and tea and was a marvelous host. Something about jet lag and being on the other side of the world is that you feel most awake at night, plus there the sun doesn’t go down till around 9 at night and is out at 5 in the morning. So while we were with him, we talked for hours and we, specifically me, lost track of time. When I had just seen the sun go down, I thought it was still early, but it was already 10 p.m.! I did not want to leave. Before I forget to mention it, Irena collects toy horses, specifically handmade Russian toy horses. They were scattered all over her apartment, and I thought that was so cute. While we were at the market earlier that day, I had found a toy horse, and I had to get it for her. When I brought it to their apartment, Irena wasn’t there, but Roger made sure she received it when she returned home.

The dance classes were also very interesting since we did not speak Russian. One teacher knew a bit of English, but altogether you had to use your sense of sight to keep up with the class. Although this was difficult, it made sure I paid attention, and now I feel like I have a new way of learning in class. But there is something about dance and the fact that you really don’t need to speak the same language to understand what is happening. One of the classes we took was considered a beginner’s class, but I like to call it an “experimental” class. The class consisted of partner improvisation work where one person closes their eyes and the other either blows on, gently taps or brushes on the person’s elbow, neck, ankle, knee or ribcage. This was all directed by the teacher, who would tell you whether to blow on, tap or brush your partner, and we would slowly move them in a beautiful, constant, smooth motion.

There are two more things I would like to talk about. The first one is the central park of Moscow: Gorky Park. Look up pictures of it, and you will see the beauty of this magical place. This is where I had the best nap of my life. It may have been because of jet lag, but we were also lucky enough that the weather was beautiful the entire two weeks of our visit — gorgeous blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. There also did not seem to be many bugs out yet, so we weren’t getting bitten constantly by mosquitoes. With all of this in my favor, I had the best hour and a half nap ever. Along with everything else, I will NEVER forget this nap.

The second thing is the Bolshoi. Wow, did I feel fancy! I felt like I should have had a gown on when I went. It is jaw-dropping, even if I’m looking at the pictures I took of it, and those don’t do it justice. We first toured the old, original Bolshoi theater, then we attended a performance in the New Bolshoi. We saw the Carmen and Petrushka ballets, and they were both absolutely outstanding. I would go every night if I could, although the food and water is way overpriced. Something that quickly caught my attention about the Russian culture is that when they clap, they clap in sync, which I felt kind of made the crowd connected and you felt like you were a part of something. We also saw a modern dance piece called “Cafe Idiot,” which was also jaw-dropping. Something I learned while we saw all these performances that saddened me was that because dance is appreciated so much more there, it is a political situation. Ballet was considered the dance style that was still stuck in the old mindset of socialism and is supported by the Russian government, and modern dancers were considered more of the “radicals,” those trying to move on and be free. This made me not only sad since they are divided, but because ballet is what I love most, and is what I dreamt about going to Russia for— the ballet.

Russia, Russia, Russia. Why must you make it so hard to say goodbye? So many amazing memories were made, and you will always have a place in my heart. I pray and hope that that was not my last time seeing you, and because of this prayer and hope, I will not settle with “goodbye” but with “see you again soon.”




Author Savannah Cook is a senior at MTSU majoring in dance. The views and opinions expressed above are her own.