Kiryl Valoshin, the co-founder of embattled Belarusian media outlet Tut.by, is now teaching dance classes with Valyantsina Chuduk in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. The pair say the classes help distract Belarusians from the turmoil in their home country.
Journalist Valoshin co-founded Tut.by in 2000. The site soon grew to become Belarus's leading independent news outlet. After mass protests swept the country in August 2020 in the wake of a disputed presidential election, Tut.by was blocked by the authorities and several of its journalists arrested. Thousands of Belarusians have fled to Lithuania since the repressions intensified last summer.
Valoshin explained the appeal of dancing in a time of crisis. "During the dance you're distracted from negativity," he told RFE/RL. "You smile at your partner who you're meeting for the first time… It takes you out of your gloomy thoughts."
Last week, Belarusian authorities opened a new criminal probe against Tut.by staff in Belarus for allegedly inciting "hatred or discord." An unspecified number of workers for the journalism portal potentially face up to 12 years in prison. Earlier, 15 editors and journalists from Tut.by were arrested on charges of tax evasion. Eleven remain in prison.
Valyantsina Chuduk, says the pair had the idea for teaching classes in West Coast Swing dancing several years ago, but have now finally found their opportunity as exiles in Vilnius. West Coast Swing is an upbeat American dance originating in the 1940s and 1950s with an emphasis on improvisation.
"It's a very communicative dance," Chuduk says. "It doesn't have strict rules and there's a lot of variations in what one partner does and how the other partner answers."
Natallya, a young Belarusian woman learning the American dance, told RFE/RL: "I love it! In the beginning it felt a bit awkward, but now I feel very spiritual and lively, very happy. All I have to do is find a partner."
"There is mourning, there is grief," Chuduk says of the situation faced today by many Belarusians. But life continues "and it is normal to mourn, live, and dance."