For more than 10 years, Janet Reineck and her free-floating World Dance for Humanity troupe have hosted the gyrating flash mob that gathers in the Sunken Garden at the County Courthouse to dance to Michael Jackson’s monster hit “Thriller.” Every year, Reineck’s Thriller-thon draws 100-300 performers of all sizes, skills, and stripes. But since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Reineck has been all about Ukraine, all the time. Or as she put it, “I can’t not think about Ukraine all the time, every day. I can’t think about anything else.”
To this end, Reineck and her dancing co-conspirators have raised $60,000 in small donations to send to Ukraine for food, gas, and medical supplies. An anonymous Ukrainian here in town promised to match this amount by $50,000, making the total raised to date $110,000. According to Reineck, her silent angel has offered to make one more match.
Reineck, who in a previous incarnation worked as a humanitarian aid worker building schools and drilling wells in Kosovo, said she’s giving the money to the pastor of the Ukrainian United Evangelical Baptist Church, who in turn wires the money to Ukraine. There, in-country volunteers load up their cars with supplies and get them distributed where they are needed the most. On the way back, these volunteers pick up women and children fleeing Ukraine and take them to refugee outposts in Poland, Hungary, and Romania. Three of these volunteers, Reineck said, have been killed by Russian snipers. Every penny the group raises, she stressed, goes directly to Ukrainian relief efforts. Reineck’s dance organization is strictly volunteer, she said.
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Technically speaking, Reineck runs a dance school. During COVID, she said, classes stayed open via Zoom five days a week. This past Sunday, about 30 of her dancers — almost all women who range in age from 30 to 90 — visited the Ukrainian Baptist Church in Goleta. In visits past, they danced in the church parking lot. This past week, they joined in song with the congregation. Santa Barbara, she said, has a Ukrainian community 400 to 500 strong. At the first pro-Ukrainian rally held at the County Courthouse, her World Dance dancers — dressed in yellow and blue — gave a performance. This Thursday, they will gather on State Street and break into dancing flash mobs for First Thursday. This Saturday — like all Saturdays since the war’s inception — they will gather in Paseo Nuevo to provide dancing accompaniment to the weekly bake sale held there to raise funds for Ukraine.
Reineck is not remotely Ukrainian, but for her, the war hits home nonetheless. She spent eight years in Kosovo during the 1990s when tensions between the Albanians and Serbs boiled over into genocidal violence by the Serbs. Reineck was doing research at the time for the PhD she got in anthropology from UC Berkeley; likewise for her master’s degree in dance ethnography. She worked for Oxfam as well. With a pedigree like that, it’s not surprising the Serbs suspected Reineck was a CIA operative. She was told in no uncertain terms to leave the country. “I felt all this very personally,” she stated. That history, she said, informs the urgency of her work on behalf of Ukraine. The dance troupe almost from the start has raised funds for international relief. Reineck said the group raised $25,000 for Rwanda over the years.
After getting expelled from Kosovo, Reineck moved to Santa Barbara, where her parents — who had met while attending Santa Barbara College on the Riviera during World War II — had retired. She got a gig with Direct Relief for five years, another with the Natural Disaster Search Dog Foundation. She’s now retired. But not really. Since 2010, she’s thrown her considerable energy into her dance classes. Every day, she said, there’s new music. And every day, the classes focus on some world event. “If there’s a volcano going off in Peru, we dance for it; if there are workers striking in Poland, we dance for that, too,” she said.
In the meantime, the fundraising efforts of World Dance for Humanity are still ongoing. Her anonymous Ukrainian benefactor has extended his offer of a onetime match for any funds raised by Easter. The need, she said, has only grown more immediate.