With reporting by Mo Abbas and Yelyzaveta Kovtun.
On the eve of what President Joe Biden described as "the beginning of a Russian invasion" of Ukraine, just miles from the border, children danced.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine, fewer than 30 miles away from where Russian forces have amassed, Ukrainian children and their parents attended the Ukrainian Dance Palace competition — a ballroom dance competition for children.
"Everyone who came to the competition felt that it was just political games, that it would be resolved, on the highest they’d find a way to resolve this without war," Stanislav Kuprychenkov, 33, Ukrainian Dance Palace competition organizer and father of one of one of the contestants, tells TODAY Parents. "I have relatives living in Russia and they think that, too — that things will finish without bloodshed. That’s why people came to the dance."
The competition happened in the same hotel where many foreign journalists were staying to cover the impending invasion. Kuprychenkov did say that fewer children participated this year than have in past competitions. Recently, Ukraine imposed a state of emergency as U.S. and NATO allies inflicted strict sanctions on Russia, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Ukrainians “are not afraid of anything or anyone.”
“There are 1,000 places for the child contestants. This year 700 took part,” Kuprychenkov explained. “Usually only 100 drop out. This year it’s a bit more. One of the reasons is that they’re simply afraid to come here.”
Irina Leontovich, a 26 year old web developer and mother of two daughters, one who took part in the competition, said she feels uncomfortable about the escalating tensions with Russia.
“The situation isn’t clear,” she tells TODAY. “What’s coming next? What will people do?”
Still, she believes it is important to keep dancing, even during these difficult times.
“I don’t want to live in fear,” she explains. “So we keep dancing, and I believe everything will be OK.”
Since the competition, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into two eastern regions of Ukraine after "recognizing their independence." Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, the capitol of Ukraine, said in a video message following Putin's speech that Russia "had declared war on its neighbor."
Prior to the most recent escalations, Kuprychenkov says he believes there are essentially two groups of people in Ukraine — those who are afraid of what is to come, and those who are not.
"One group is afraid and doesn’t go anywhere and tries to stay at home. That is why some competitors did not take part in our competition," he explains. "The second believes that nothing will happen and we are friendly people and will be able to find a common language without bloodshed. I keep the same point of view."Kuprychenkov also shared that during the competition, the parents didn't share their fears, but rather "simply don’t know what’s going to happen. What might happen in general, in the city."
As for the children who danced the night away, Kuprychenkov says they "simply can’t understand what’s going on with the country. They haven’t said anything to their parents about tensions with Russia."