The spirit of the Ukrainian people and their cultural traditions are alive and well in Canada thanks to people like Angie Esplen, a Realtor with Sutton – Harrison Realty in Russell, Man. She drove her children to dance practices and recitals for years and when they graduated from high school, Esplen and other mothers decided to form their own group: the M&Ms, which stands for Menopausal Mommas.
“The M&Ms do traditional Ukrainian dances and are known for character dances,” says Esplen. “We practice weekly and compete throughout Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. We performed at Dauphin’s National Ukrainian Festival in 2020 and feel honoured to be invited back this year. We also host an annual competition in Russell, and I’ve been chairperson of that for a decade.”
Esplen and fellow M&Ms, including two of her sisters, run a kitchen at the dance hall, where they make and sell homemade perogies and borscht with all proceeds helping to support the Yachminka Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. She has been dancing and volunteering for 20 years, but now with Ukraine under attack, being able to preserve aspects of traditional culture takes on a special meaning.
“We pray for peace in the Ukraine, and I talk to our family there quite often. We have been sending them care packages and money through Western Union so they can buy medicine for the families who need it,” she says.
In 2013 and 2017, she returned to Ukraine for family weddings and introduced her son and daughter to their ancestral homeland. “It’s such a beautiful country. The heritage and history of it all…. It brings you back because of their traditions and the warmth of the people. And the good vodka,” she says with a laugh.
“My grandfather came from a small village in Ukraine when he was 13-years-old. My great-grandfather got sick on the trip to Canada and was not allowed to stay. So, my grandfather was the only child of 12 children who got to come to Canada. He settled in the Leonard area near Russell and had 10 children of his own. That’s where the family farm has been for over 100 years.”
Esplen and one of her sisters also sing and dance at retirement homes a few times per year and at the annual Beef and Barley Festival in Russell, they ride a mechanical bull to raise money for their dance group. That’s dedication.