JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Through dance, Jim Shustrick is keeping Slavic heritage alive.
The Johnstown resident said his interest in ethnic dancing dates back to the 1970s, when he and his late wife attended a Croatian picnic.
“I was familiar with it, but I didn’t know people in Johnstown were still doing those dances,” Shustrick said.
“My wife and I then decided to start learning things, and from there, we got involved with learning as much as we could here in Johnstown.”
The couple even started taking classes in Pittsburgh to study dances and bring them back to Johnstown.
“There are places you can take lessons. One is the Tuesday Night International Folk Dance Group, and different ethnic groups offer weekly lessons,” Shustrick said.
“We started going down there (Pittsburgh) when we could. You would have beginners, intermediate and advanced lessons and social dancing.”
With a better understanding of the dances, he started the Johnstown Folk Dancers in the late ’80s.
“We emphasized mostly the Eastern European dances from the Balkan era,” Shustrick said. “We call them Kolo dances, which means ‘circle’ in Croatian and Serbian, so they are mostly circle or line dances. There are some that are couple dances, but not quite as many.”
He said the group attended local ethnic events and performed dances.
“We started being asked by people if we could teach dances, so we began offering lessons,” Shustrick said.
He said the dance group disbanded more than 10 years ago, and now he offers dance classes when needed for upcoming events or upon request.
“The majority of the dances are Serbian, but there are Croatian, Macedonian and Bulgarian dances, so certain ones have become popular around the area and people want to learn them,” Shustrick said.
In preparation for the Johnstown Slavic Festival, which will be held Sept. 15 and 16 at the Heritage Discovery Center, Shustrick will offer traditional Croatian, Serbian and other ethnic dance lessons from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 30 and 31 and Sept. 6, 7 and 13 at the Croatian Hall, 612 Broad St. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown.
The classes are open to people of all ages, and there’s no fee to attend. Registration can be made by calling Shustrick at 814-421-4958.
“We’re trying to get people more interested, and they can attend as many as they want,” he said. “For last year’s class, we had about a dozen or so people, and you could really see their improvement as they went along.”
The classes are instructed by Shustrick; his sister, Cheryl Chovanec, of Johnstown; and friend and former Johnstown resident Rich Baich, of Pittsburgh.
“We start with the simpler things and build on it,” Shustrick said. “With only five classes, you really don’t get too far, but at least you get to do dances to music that is played frequently throughout the evening. If it’s a danceable song, they’ll jump in.”
He said feedback from those who have taken lessons is positive.
“You watch people get out there and dance at the Slavic Festival, and it’s nice if you can participate,” Shustrick said.
He said at last year’s Johnstown Slavic Festival, there were about 30 people showing off their dancing skills.
“It’s more of a communal thing with a group, and you don’t need a partner,” Shustrick said.
There are no additional dance classes scheduled at this time, but he said he’s open to teaching a dance class if there’s an interest.
Shustrick said it’s important for him to carry on the tradition of these ethnic dances so they are not forgotten.
“Singing and dancing are a big part of these ethnic groups in the Slavic countries,” he said. “These dances can be challenging, but it’s also a lot of fun.”