For as long as Lena Raykova can remember, dance has been an integral part of her life. It not only has given her the steps to learn about multiple cultures and their customs, but has also given her a chance to travel the world.
"When I first started, I was too small to decide on my own," said Raykova, 16, of her first forays into dance while growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was her parents, she said, who initially got her started, but in the ensuing years it has been her own passion that has kept her going. "Now, it's the biggest part of my life."
Raykova is a member of the award-winning folk dance troupe Rossijanochka, which also is based in St. Petersburg. For the past two weeks, 18 members of that group, aged 9 to 17, have been traveling to locations around Connecticut to share their intricate and acrobatic routines on stages large and small. On a recent morning, the group had just performed for Long Ridge School in Stamford and were headed to a charter school in Bridgeport in the afternoon.
During the upcoming weekend, they are expected to make stops at Stepping Stones Museum in Norwalk on Saturday, May 3, and the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, May 4.
The latter performance is part of a Creative Connections' "Arts for Understanding" performance benefit. Creative Connections, a Norwalk-based, nonprofit international cultural education organization, is hosting the U.S. tour, as it has two previous times. Raykova and Tony Sidorin, 16, were both a part of the 2009 tour.
"For me, the most interesting part (of the trip) is the people," said Sidorin, who added that he enjoys making connections with the people for whom he has performed, as well as the families who are hosting the group. "It's been great, amazing."
These cultural bonds and mutual appreciation are the aim of the International Young Performers Tour, which is coordinated by Creative Connections twice a year. Over the years, different youth groups have come to the United States to share their heritage through music, song or dance. While here, the group performs and gives workshops, visits schools and stays with host families.
Rossijanochka was founded in 1944 in St. Petersburg as a small folk dance ensemble, but eventually became an award-winning group that was recognized around the world. It has performed in France, England, Japan, India and Angola. It is led by artistic director Alexander Nosikhin, who is the son of the founder.
The group draws from multiple folk traditions from across Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as those from other corners of the globe, including the American Southwest.
Sidorin, who began dancing when he was 8, said he has a great time every time his feet hit the stage.
The group brings folk dances from around the world and adds pop and flair through the vivid, handmade costumes they don for each show. Intricate footwork, complicated spins, jumps and low kicks are evidence of the talent that runs deep in the group.
"I love learning about all the styles of dance from all the different countries," Raykova said. "Through the dance, you get to learn something about the culture."
For both performers, music and dance has been a way to communicate with others, when their words might falter.
"I believe dancing unites all people," Sidorin said. "Music is the universal language for all."
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Stepping Stones Museum for Children, 303 West Ave., Norwalk. Saturday, May 3, 2-3 p.m. $15-free. 203-899-0606, steppingstonesmuseum.org.
Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge Ave., Ridgefield. Sunday, May 4, 6 p.m. $150 (includes 4 p.m. patron reception/special seating); $30-$15 (performance only.) 203-438-5795, www.ridgefieldplayhouse.org.