Belarus – pressed upon by Russia, Ukraine and Poland – is a landlocked crossroads, much like Kentucky.

And, like the Bluegrass state, the small country was a “dark and bloody ground,” with competing forces battling for control.

During World War II, Belarus lost between 25 and 33 percent of its population – a higher percentage than any other country. The Germans destroyed almost three out of every four cities along with 85 percent of its industry. In Belarus’ capitol, Minsk – the home of Louisville ballroom dance teacher Alex Ioukhnel (pronounced Yook-nul) – the Jewish population, which once formed a thriving cultural center, was desolated. Since 1994, the country has been ruled by a president that many call “the last dictator in Europe.”

“People in Belarus by default have their living standard set on ‘hard,’” says Ioukhnel. “Leaving felt almost like escaping a prison.” Ioukhnel and his wife, Svetlana, found freedom by boat and by foot, but not in the usual sense.

These days, life is just short of hectic for the couple, who own Bravo Dance Studio located just off Bardstown Road in West Buechel. Five nights a week they hold group classes or dance parties in the upstairs ballroom, and seven days a week – from 10 in the morning to 11 at night – they or staff are available for private lessons. “I’m a small-business owner,” Alex explains, almost apologetically.

Sunday mornings find Alex and Svetlana teaching side by side in the ballroom. Svetlana, a cheerful, blue-eyed woman who carries herself with a relaxed and natural grace, leads a class of 5-year-olds, who seem naturally inclined to fill large empty floor space with their discoveries of movement. Sliding, jumping, spinning and hopping, however, are not recognized ballroom patterns, and she works hard to maintain their focus. As the class draws to a close, Svetlana scolds them. “None of you were dancing to the music, none of you kept the beat, none of you had good styling. Okay? What am I telling you guys?”

(The same problems were encountered by Louisville’s earliest known dance teacher, a hapless Frenchman, when he tried to teach frontier urchins the latest steps from Europe at a purported settlers’ first Christmas party. The story, as retold by historian Reuben T. Durrett, ended with the would-be students in open rebellion.)

“Kids are not used to working hard and they need to be pushed,” Svetlana says. “But the hard part is knowing who doesn’t understand and who is just being lazy.”