Kaleidoscope: How a Ukrainian dance ignited a debate on cultural appropriation

The Ukrainian choreographer and the Indigenous entrepreneur at the centre of a cultural appropriation debate have agreed to sit down with CBC News to discuss the controversial dance, the fallout and a surprising twist.

Ukrainian dance created to honour Indigenous people stirs controversy

Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble choreographer Serhij Koroliuk, right, and his dancers practise recently in Saskatoon. (Jason Warick/CBC)

​Six young men dance arm-in-arm, stomping as they move in a tight, precise circle.

The men kneel and clap as a dozen female dancers float and swirl and kick across the stage at a recent rehearsal in their Saskatoon studio.

This Ukrainian folk dance is called the Holubka. It's familiar territory for the dancers and their bouncing, gesticulating choreographer, Serhij Koroliuk.

Three months ago, Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble faced a wave of accusations on social media for one of its other routines called Kaleidoscope, a multicultural dance that included segments from French, Indigenous and other cultures. The group said the dance was created to honour Indigenous people and other cultures, but critics labelled it "cultural appropriation."

The term is popping up with increasing frequency — Halloween headdress costumes, music sampling and author Joseph Boyden's ancestry have all stirred debate. When is it OK to share, borrow or take elements of other cultures?

Cultural appropriation: Is it ever OK?


3 years ago
Cultural appropriation: Is it ever OK? 1:42

Koroliuk, as well as Janelle Pewapsconias, the Indigenous entrepreneur who first posted the video on Facebook, agreed to sit down with CBC News to talk about Kaleidoscope, the fallout and a surprising twist.

'Feeling powerless, feeling angry'

Indigenous entrepreneur and poet Janelle Pewapsconias said when the Kaleidoscope dance began at FolkFest last August everything changed. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
Some have said it's never OK for Ukrainians to dance powwow. Pewapsconias, founder and CEO of Neeched Up Games, doesn't go that far — her point is that this particular performance was disrespectful to Indigenous people.

That August night at Folkfest, Pewapsconias and her sister had enjoyed the dances and food at other pavilions, and hoped to do the same at the Ukrainian.

When Kaleidoscope began, Pewapsconias, an active member of the Indigenous Poet's Society, said everything changed.

Pewapsconias noticed when a blanket containing flags of many immigrant nations was unfolded on stage, neither flag for Treaty Six nor the Métis Nation — the Indigenous jurisdictions on which the City of Saskatoon sits — was represented. The Indigenous dance costumes were partly plastic.

​Pewapsconias noted that for decades, First Nations people were banned from dancing powwow and performing their spiritual ceremonies.

It was part of a massive effort to eradicate Indigenous culture that included residential schools, the pass system and the Sixties Scoop.

She and her family are finally reclaiming their culture, so she was shocked to see non-Indigenous people taking liberties with their traditions.

"It just immediately went from having a fun, OK night to feeling powerless, feeling angry," she said.

"I feel this way. The people I'm with feel this way. I need to share this on social media and call this out. So that's what I did."

Some on social media accused the dance group of using Indigenous culture as entertainment. But others defended the dancers saying critics were too sensitive.

A love letter to Canada

Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble choreographer Serhij Koroliuk said he created Kaleidoscope as a love letter to Canada on his 10th anniversary of becoming a citizen. (Bridget Yard/CBC)
 Koroliuk hasn't spoken publicly about this controversy until now.

He created Kaleidoscope as a love letter to Canada on his 10th anniversary of becoming a citizen. His dancers have performed this same routine several times in Saskatoon and around the world to standing ovations. He said people of all cultures including Indigenous have thanked the group for reaching out to their culture.

Koroliuk calls himself "a made in Ukraine Canadian."

He was born just one generation after a genocide called the Holodomor in which millions of Ukrainians were intentionally starved to death by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

So he was particularly hurt to see the online comments calling him a colonizer and accusing him of cultural appropriation.

"Shocked. The simple answer is I was shocked. So were my dancers," he said.

"I thought I was contributing in this way and expressing my gratitude but I felt like I was outcasted and saying 'This is not your place.'"

'Coming from a place of goodness'

Don Speidel, who offered advice to Koroliuk when Kaleidoscope was first created, said he understands the frustration of young Indigenous people who are often finding their voice through social media. (Jason Warick/CBC)
Caught in the middle of the controversy was Don Speidel of Buffalo Boy Productions.

Speidel, who has spent his life trying to bridge the gap between Indigenous cultures and the rest of society, offered advice to Koroliuk when the dance was first created more than a decade ago.

Many criticized Speidel for "approving" the dance, but others say Koroliuk took liberties and should have consulted more. Still others saw the dance as imperfect but applauded the effort to honour Indigenous cultures.

Speidel, who has travelled the world conducting ceremonies, including a recent honouring of late-singer Gord Downie in Ottawa, said he doesn't want to point fingers at anyone — he'd rather figure out ways to bring people together.

He said he understands the frustration of young Indigenous people who are often finding their voice through social media. He also sees the efforts being made by non-Indigenous people, even if the execution doesn't match the intent.

He said the key is for everyone to respect each other.

"When you want authentic engagement, you might be prepared to take that relationship to a whole other level."

"It's really about that idea of coming from a place of goodness."

Groups seek reconciliation after cultural appropriation controversy


3 years ago
A Ukrainian dance ignited a debate on cultural appropriation. This is how the groups moving towards reconciliation. 3:17

Reconciliation begins with conversation

That relationship-building has already begun.

Koroliuk and Pewapsconias met earlier this fall and agreed to take the stage together in Saskatoon on Wednesday.

Koroliuk has put Kaleidoscope on hold. He said he didn't intend to cause pain but knows that the dance did.

He wants to work with Indigenous experts and hopes they can find a way to honour First Nations people.

"I'm puzzled and definitely I will have to address it differently," he said. "Many hurt was done to First Nations people. I recognize that. We all live side by side. Let's be good friends and neighbours. Let's build this great country together."

Pewapsconias also wants to learn more. She said she never meant to hurt anyone, but knows the Facebook posts did.

She said reconciliation begins with conversation — sometimes those are awkward, sometimes painful.

"I hope good things come from this and we're able to leave the table being able to shake each other's hand and give each other the respect they deserve," she said. "because we're all human."

Ukrainian dance performance at Saskatoon Folkfest


4 years ago
A Saskatchewan Ukrainian dance group incorporates First Nation clothing and dance into a multicultural performance. 0:54

Full Kaleidoscope performance by Pavlychenko Folklorique Ensemble

3 years ago
Serhij Koroliuk says he ceated Kaleidoscope as a love letter to Canada on his 10th anniversary of becoming a citizen 7:32

CBC Saskatchewan is hosting a discussion on cultural appropriation at the Broadway Theatre on Wednesday. Guests include Janelle Pewapsconias and Serhij Koroliuk, as well as artists, academics and elders of all cultures.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.