A local dance instructor is stepping down after almost 30 years teaching dancers in Soldotna.
Vergine (pronounced “Vair-geen-ay”) had her studio in an empty storefront of the Blazy Mall, where she taught between 13-20 students. Some were puzzled by her brusque manner and broken English, and many intimidated by her rigorous training. But her own ballet career — which had brought her to an audition with the top dance company in Armenia — had been based on that rigor, and she saw no reason to relax it in Soldotna.
“When I started it… no one wanted to understand what dancers are even supposed to look like,” Hedberg said. “They all said ‘oh I just want to come have fun.’ …My training was Russian style. Very strict. So coming and trying to do the same thing here, it was scary. For several years people treated me like I’m so mean.”
When Vergine Hedberg opened her dance studio in 1987, she required students to wear uniforms and hair-buns. She said this was a novelty in Soldotna — where she’d moved from her native Armenia six years prior — and not always welcome one.
“When a student comes to the dance studio, changes their street clothes with the uniform, they are also changing their attitude that comes from the outside,” Hedberg said. “… It was very inconvenient. They kept saying ‘I don’t want it… this is not my color, I don’t look good in it.’ All the excuses.”
The coming year will be the first since 1987 that Hedberg won’t be leading her studio — now around 300 students, she said — through their annual rounds of rehearsal, performance, fundraising, and competition.
The studio will continue under new ownership, but Hedberg will retire at the end of this year.
“You have to stop somewhere, but it doesn’t change the emotions you have caring for these kids,” Hedberg said. “Some of the dancers I have, they have been here ten years, 14 years. I’m moving on with the idea that I’m going to retire, but at the same time I’m so attached to them. It’s very hard for me emotionally. But I know it’s life.”
Friends of friends
Before coming to Soldotna, Hedberg described herself as a “city girl.” Her hometown was Yerevan, a city of around 1.2 million and the capital of Armenia, then a member of the Soviet Union.
Hedberg said her parents sustained the family by working two jobs — one official and legal, the other in the unsanctioned underground economy that she said nearly everyone in Yerevan relied on.
“Friend of friends,” Hedberg said, explaining how the black market economy operated. “If I need a piece of paper, a document — ok, I will give you one ruble, you will give me the piece of paper… It was crazy. Everything was friend of friends to find.”
It was through a friend that Hedberg discovered ballet. Around the age of eight, a classmate told her about a local children’s dance company.
“I went there with her, and from that point on I danced until I was 19, almost 20,” Vergine said.
In 11 years of dancing, Hedberg had graduated from children’s and amateur companies and stood at the edge of a professional career. She auditioned for Armenia’s State Ballet Company.
“It took a lot of guts, a lot of talent,” Hedberg said. “That was the top, top company that existed in my country… They traveled all over the world, and they pay you like a job.
It’s very serious, very challenging. And I was nobody. I had no friends, no money when I tried to get in. I had only talent.”
Shortly after being accepted into the State Ballet Company, Hedberg dropped out. Dance had come in conflict with the other prevailing passion of her life: religion.
“I had to make a decision at that time,” Hedberg said. “I became a Christian, and (the church) said no, you can’t do that. It is a sin to dance.”
Although Hedberg’s family belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church — one of the few religious institutions allowed to co-exist with official Soviet atheism — the faith she found as adult was different — stronger, she said, yet “very legalistic.”
Unlike the government-sanctioned church, the fundamentalist sect Hedberg joined held no public worship, but met for prayer and study in members’ homes. It had a strict decorum and dress code — beards for men, long hair and skirts for women, and a prohibition on dancing that Hedberg took seriously.
“I thought if I continue, maybe I will end up in hell,” she said. “I didn’t have a Bible, I didn’t know. I just believed them. I thought ‘maybe this is worldly.’ I got scared. But at the same time, I wanted (to dance) because that was the only thing I always desired.”
Hedberg said that in hindsight, she understands the fundamentalists better now than she had as a member.
“They wanted to worship God so deeply that they cross overboard…” she said. “As a young dancer — worldly — going there it was like ‘what?’ So it was very difficult for me to understand, but I very slowly got into it. Also I got out of it, because I realized they went too far.”
By the time Hedberg left the group, her opportunity for professional dancing had passed.
“When you stop dancing two or three years, it sets you back,” she said. “Your body changes, your muscles change… Especially the level of dancer I wanted. If you want to dance for fun, you can go dance for fun anytime. But I just couldn’t get back to it. I just felt like I’d lost it, the level of dancer I was before.”
Without dance and without a church, Vergine said she spent six years feeling “lost.” In this absence, she decided her future would be in marriage and family life. Her continuing religious convictions created further complications.
“I refused to marry an unsaved person because I was very scared,” Vergine said. “I thought ‘I’m just going to hell if I do that.’ So patiently, and with a lot of difficulties, I was praying to get a husband… After going about six years of struggles, finally when I totally surrendered to God, God showed me that I would marry an American.”
Meanwhile in Nikiski, Jim Hedberg, a worker at the Unocal Alaska Nitrogen Products plant, believed God was telling him to go to Russia. He said the “underground evangelistic group” he had joined was planning to smuggle Bibles into the Soviet Union by entering as spectators at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Olympic plan never materialized. In protest against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, US President Jimmy Carter barred US athletes from competing in the Moscow Olympics. The evangelical group didn’t go either. By that time, though, Jim had withdrawn from the Bible-smuggling mission, believing he’d found a different destiny.
At one of the group’s Bible study meetings, Jim met the Armenian wife of a Unocal co-worker. The woman asked him if he’d write letters to her friend in Armenia. Jim said yes, and began corresponding with his co-worker’s wife’s Armenian friend, Vergine.
“The moment I started to write, I literally experienced God’s love for her,” Jim said. “It literally would pour down from above and go through me and out my chest. It was a really interesting phenomenon. How do you love somebody you’ve never seen? It started the moment I put my pen to paper… it wasn’t emotions. It wasn’t me. It’s a supernatural love. It’s a love outside your ability to love.”
At the time, Vergine’s two languages were Armenian and Russian. A friend who read English translated the letters between her and Jim, which continued several months. In one letter, Jim proposed marriage.
“The only reason I said ‘yes’ was because I realized he was a serious Christian man,” Vergine said. “I didn’t care about America. I wanted very strongly a solid marriage.”
After Vergine agreed to marriage, Jim traveled to Armenia. Communicating through a Russian-English dictionary, the two married, then traveled the country during the Soviet Union’s 45-day waiting period for marriage licenses.
Following the marriage Jim returned to Alaska. He said that in response to the American Olympic boycott, the Soviet government had shut down its immigration offices.
“As a result, it took another year for her to get out of the country,” Jim said. “… One year writing, one year waiting, with ten weeks in the middle. And it was the most natural, normal relationship you could ever ask for.”
Vergine said that when she joined her husband in Soldotna in 1981, she was not immediately fond of her new town.
“There was no traffic lights,” Vergine said. “You could count cars on your fingers. My husband went and bought moonboots for me, and I was like, ‘I can’t wear these. This is ridiculous.’ I was a city girl, I am used to high heels.”
Vergine, who until that point had lived in government-sponsored urban apartments, said it was exciting to discover that Jim owned a home — at first.
“I didn’t understand about housing,” she said. “… I would say ‘I’m so happy you have home.’ And he would say ‘Yeah, it’s my home, but if I don’t pay, they will come and take it away.’”
Vergine adapted to Alaskan weather and capitalist finances, but she said her hardest adjustment was to the American style of conversation.
“In my country we talk straight,” she said. “… Here, I would compliment people, saying ‘Oh you put on a few pounds! You look so beautiful!’ They would just roll their eyes. It took me years to figure that out. In my country, we don’t like skinny people.”
Six years after her 1981 arrival, Vergine nonetheless felt comfortable enough with the new culture to start her studio.
“She had settled in, and she was looking to get out of the house and make a few dollars, and a friend said to her, why don’t you open a dance studio?” Jim said. “And we didn’t know anything about dance studios, but she had talent.”
Vergine said her initial investment in the studio was low because she had arranged to share a space with an aerobics teacher who taught during the day, while Vergine held dance lessons for children after school. Her early mistakes, she said, where in choosing co-teachers and dealing with parents. Many arose from cultural differences.
“Over there teachers yell and scream at you, but you don’t take that personally because it’s about the teaching,” Vergine said. “Maybe (the) teacher is excited, talks loud. Here they say ‘oh, she talks loud and my daughter was scared, my son didn’t like that.’”
Although her studio now teaches four styles of dance, it began with one: ballet. Vergine said this was also an unpopular choice in the beginning.
“Because ballet is very slow, very technical,” she said. “And it’s not fun. Children like to jump up and down. And (ballet) is very controlled, very disciplined… The best dancers that I have, they can testify how much they hated ballet, but they grew to love it because I persuaded them. I challenged them.”
The studio eventually added jazz, then tap-dancing and hip-hop styles. Nonetheless, Vergine says the conditioning of ballet is a foundation even for dancers of other genres.
“You can be a fine dancer, but if you don’t take ballet you won’t have that fine edge, that gracefulness, that poise that it takes to make someone a beautiful jazz dancer,” she said.
Vergine takes her studio’s three dance companies to a weeklong training camp in California every other year, and to the annual Nuvo dance competition and convention in Anchorage in late September. According to the Nuvo webpage, routines by Vergine’s dancers in 2015 placed first in 3 of 7 categories, and third in another. Closer to home, she said the attitude toward her training is different now.
“These last 15 years it has been wonderful,” Vergine said. “People start respecting me, understanding what I’m coming from. I don’t fight. They know what I want, and I’ve proved to them what I’m after. They see the results.”
Vergine said her retirement is a “very sound decision” with a simple explanation.
“I feel like I need a little bit of freedom now,” she said. “That’s the only reason.”
She speaks frankly about the stress of managing the studio.
“Running a business, it has been very, very — killer of my life,” she said. “Anything I would do, my studio will come first priority… I would like to just stay home and do nothing, but I never had a chance.”
After retirement Vergine may make more frequent visits to her friends and family in Armenia, whom she said she sees about every five years. Even by airplane, she said the trip takes about two days with several layovers. Longer and more frequent visits were impossible while she had a studio to run.
As for bigger retirement plans, Vergine said she presently has none. “It’s a totally new page of my life,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I’d like to give some time for myself, just to grieve a little bit for my loss. It will take a little bit of time for my emotions to balance out.”
The studio, however, will continue. Darcy Swanson, mother of five of Vergine’s present students, plans to buy Vergine’s business and continue with the same teachers and programs.
“(Swanson and her husband) have seven children and five of them dance now,” Swanson said. “They’re young and we want to be able to continue the legacy that Vergine has created of dance in our community.”
Looking back on a career split between Yerevan and Soldotna, Vergine said she lost nothing when she left the State Ballet Troop.
“Because I left dance for (God’s) name, look what he gave me,” Vergine said. “I never dreamed I would have the dancers that I have now. I get excited over my dancers. So I feel like I gained. I didn’t lose.”
Her dance students have also gained.
“Everything I had I gave to my dancers… It makes me so happy that I’m apart of their lives. Not only just being a mother figure and a friend, also as a teacher. I always say, ‘If nothing else, if you don’t want to be a star, you can always be a wonderful teacher and teach what I have taught you.’ They are still continuing.”