As the war in Ukraine approaches 150 days, global news coverage of the Russian invasion is steadily contracting into a “by the numbers” format, with scorching, unfathomable losses turned cold and quantifiable.

Delivered with the caveat that, because so many troops have been killed and buried in mass graves along the war’s 1,500-mile front line, the death toll is likely much high- er than figures suggest, reporters recite their latest tallies: Tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops and civilians are dead. Millions have been displaced. Thousands of residences, schools, and hospitals have been leveled.

Though metrics can be reductive in measuring a war’s total impact, we often take solace in the firmness of numbers when a tragedy is as dizzying and indefinite as the war in Ukraine.

As some spend their days counting casualties, Krystyna Dubrovschenko, a Ukrainian dance instructor at Durham’s Fred Astaire Dance Studio, is counting her steps. When she focuses on the number of beats in a fox-trot, or a Viennese waltz, or a bachata, she’s able to stop thinking about the war devastating her home country.

“The moment you stop counting, the thoughts start to come back into your mind,” Dubrovschenko says.

Dubrovschenko is one of a dozen Ukrainian dance instructors at Fred Astaire, a spacious South Durham dance studio with gleaming wood floors, paper-lantern-strung ceilings, and walls plastered with posters of its eponymous founder. The Durham studio, owned by local Ukrainian Yuriy Simakov, is part of a franchise launched by Astaire in 1947 that now has 180-odd locations across the United States, Europe, South America, and Africa.

Dubrovschenko grew up in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. She and her husband left the country in 2014 to escape the Russia-Ukraine conflict over Crimea and lived briefly in the United Arab Emirates before moving to Durham, where Simakov—who had taught dance lessons to Dubrovschenko’s husband years earlier in Ukraine—had offered them jobs at Fred Astaire.

Dubrovschenko’s immediate family resides in an area of Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation for the past eight years, she says, so while they are “pretty safe” from violence, they’ve also been indoctrinated by Russian propaganda.

“No matter how many facts you’re gonna tell them, no matter how many videos and news articles you’re gonna show them, it’s really hard for them to believe what’s going on,” Dubrovschenko says.

The war has had a greater impact on her husband’s parents, she says, who recently fled their home in Severodvinsk and moved to a port city in southern Ukraine, bearing no belongings except a “little purse” containing their passports and a bottle of water.

During the past few months, several Fred Astaire instructors have managed to get their families out of Ukraine—Simakov, for one, moved his parents from Ukraine to Durham in March, and his mother’s home-cooked cutlets and mashed potatoes have been a welcome comfort for staff—but Dubrovschenko’s father-in-law is younger than 60 years old, and Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country. There’s nothing that she and her husband can do to ensure his parents’ safety.

These are the things that Dubrovschenko forgets about when she counts her steps.

“It takes your mind away,” she says. “When you dance, you don’t think about anything.”

And when she’s not dancing, Dubrovschenko finds consolation in her fellow instructors, most of whom are enduring similar challenges.

Natalia, an instructor who moved from Kyiv to Durham two years ago and asked to be identified by only her first name, says her family has been struggling since 2014, when they lost everything they owned during a Russian bombing attack. The same year, Ukraine enacted a law requiring residents living in separatist-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine—including the Donetsk region, where Natalia’s parents reside—to physically cross the border into government-controlled areas every 60 days in order to receive their pension. For the past eight years, Natalia’s parents have been making the exhausting 450-mile trek from Donetsk to Kyiv every two months.

But with Donetsk now under relentless bombardment from Russian forces, her parents’ most recent journey to Kyiv has turned into an indefinite relocation. Like Dubrovschenko’s husband, Natalia is unable to retrieve her parents because her father is under 60, but she talks to them on the phone every day. On some nights, Natalia says, her mother has to hide under a blanket while reading the news on her phone so that the light of the screen doesn’t attract the attention of nearby artillery.

“It’s a new part of surviving,” Natalia says.

At Fred Astaire, Natalia has found a supportive community in not just her coworkers but her students, who bring her flowers and regularly text her to share prayers for her family.

And when she’s dancing in the studio, she says she’s able to remember “the pleasure of life.”

“You can feel the different time in different melodies,” she says.

Natalia may be referencing the rhythms and time signatures that vary from dance to dance—the kind that Dubrovschenko loses herself in—but I get the feeling that she’s looking at time through a broader lens; certain melodies remind her of a time before the war or allow her to envision a time that’s yet to come.

“Dancing distracts us in a good sense,” Natalia says. “You’re full of negative emotions, and dancing helps us to feel something better. To believe in the good future.” 

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