The first time they saw her, she was just a little girl in a long white dress sitting before a piano.
Mieke and Hendrick Smit were taking a cruise of the Black Sea in May 2006. The cruise had stopped at the Gagarin Palace in Odessa, Ukraine. A few musicians were culled for entertainment, an opera singer, a string ensemble -- nice, but nothing all that memorable. Then, almost as if she were an afterthought, the girl took the stage.
She played the crowd-pleasing "Flight of the Bumblebee." Then she performed Franz Liszt's "Etude No. 6" -- a piece Mieke recognized as difficult, even for a professional.
"She was not breaking a sweat," Mieke said. "I remember thinking, 'This is not some little girl. This is a talent.' "
Never miss a local story.
The Smits introduced themselves afterward. The girl spoke broken English, but her enthusiasm was infectious. She was quick to smile; her laugh came easily. She was only 13 years old, a student at a music school in the city.
The Smits conferred with the fellow travelers who had been sitting together. This girl is too talented to simply forget, they agreed.
The chance encounter was life-altering for young Dasha Bukhartseva. And her relationship with the Hilton Head Island couple and her other supporters has evolved, taking the girl from poverty into one of the most prestigious music schools in the country.
'WE WERE LIKE GHOSTS'
Little did the Americans know at the time, the effervescent girl had come from meager circumstances.
She was born in a little country town in Ukraine. Her father left when Dasha, an only child, was young. Her mother, Natasha, played the piano -- although not professionally. She taught her 8-year-old daughter what she knew.
Dasha had been playing for two years when they visited a music school in Odessa. She didn't know much of the musical terminology when quizzed, but her talent was enough to impress the teacher, who took her under her wing.
Shortly after Dasha and her mother moved to Odessa for school, they were evicted from their apartment. Dasha was 10 years old. They could not find another place to live that would allow them to stay in Odessa. The school's director offered to let them sleep in the practice room, a small space with not much more than a few chairs, a table and an upright piano. They hid their belongings during the day. Dasha stayed with her mother at her clerical job after she got out of school. In the evening, they'd return to the school. Dasha would practice into the night. They lived like this for six months.
"We were like ghosts," she said.
Natasha worked at a food technology academy, and eventually they were placed in a dorm, which was the size of most apartment bedrooms in the United States. They had a hot plate to cook their food. Toilets and showers were down the hall. Money was tight. But Dasha kept practicing. Once, they went to a piano competition in France for a week. They rented a room at a hotel. Dasha won a prize -- 450 euros. Good thing, her mother said. Otherwise, they wouldn't have had the money to pay for the hotel.
THE PIANIST NETWORK
The Smits are classical music enthusiasts. Mieke is a talented pianist. The couple is heavily involved in the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, which brings some of the most talented young pianists in the world to the island to compete each spring. Mieke has a network of people who know how to work with young talent. They figured they could use that network to help Dasha. But they needed to find a way to showcase the girl's skills. They didn't have any recordings of her playing.
By chance, a fellow traveler from the cruise sliced together a DVD of the trip from video footage he'd taken and mailed a copy to friends. Mieke's eyes got wide when she heard the strains of piano coming from her television. Included were two minutes of Dasha playing. Mieke got back in touch. Did he have any more footage of Dasha?
Of course, he had the whole performance. She showed the DVD to judges at the piano competition that year. The girl had talent. If she wanted to compete in the Hilton Head competition, she had to wait -- contestants have to be at least 18. Mieke knew she had to find other outlets.
Meanwhile, across the country, another couple had been working on Dasha's behalf. Several months after the Smits, Dan and Lynne Levinson took the same trip, heard the same performance and had the same reaction.
The Levinsons were involved in the Aspen Music Festival, a classical music event with classes for talented youngsters internationally. They were encouraging Dasha to apply.
Mieke heard about the Levinsons and placed a call to Aspen festival teacher Ann Schein, who had also judged at the Hilton Head competition, and told her to keep an eye out for the girl from Ukraine.
Dan Levinson showed the DVD to the head of the school. He even returned to Ukraine to help Dasha and her mother get visas, once she was accepted.
"It was something out of this world," Dasha said. "I was thinking, 'This doesn't happen to people.' I'm very fortunate."
When Dasha first flew into Aspen, she felt anxious. Growing up poor in Ukraine, she said she didn't get a good sense of generosity. If someone makes a seemingly charitable offer, the first inclination is that it's a trick, a chance to take advantage of a rube. So her and her mother started to wonder: What if we arrive and no one's there? What if it's a ruse?
But, of course, it wasn't. The people she trusted didn't disappear. The opportunities promised were still there.
Dasha came to the Aspen festival two years in a row. She took lessons with Schein and appeared on the NPR show "From the Top," a program that showcases young musicians. The first year, the Smits flew out to Aspen and spent five days there, where Mieke took lessons and played duets with Dasha.
Between the summers in Aspen, Dasha returned to Odessa to continue her studies. But she figured the best place to get an education in music was the United States. She was accepted into the pre-college program at Juilliard in 2008. Dasha received a partial scholarship, but Mieke had to raise the rest of the money for her $35,000 tuition.
Two years later, she was accepted at The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where she still studies. She received numerous scholarships, but not enough to fully cover her studies. Mieke got to work raising money again. In all, she figures that about $100,000 has been raised for Dasha so far. The eight people who saw that first performance with Dasha on the cruise still contribute.
Dasha talks daily with her mother on Skype. Natasha still lives in Ukraine, but she no longer has to fear being kicked out of her home. Dan Levinson bought a house in Odessa and lets her live there.
Dasha has visited Hilton Head five times, usually around the holidays. She gives performances at TidePointe, where the Smits live. This Christmas break, she played an hour set for a full house at TidePointe. For an encore, she and Mieke sat side by side on the bench and played a duet. Dasha's relationship with the Smits has taken on a grandparent-like quality -- they take her shopping, feed her and let her play the piano in their townhouse.
This isn't the first time the Smits have made a point to help a child. Since the 1970s, they've sponsored children through SOS Children's Villages, an international foundation that seeks to help orphans. But they've never been as involved with one child who's not their own such as they have with Dasha.
The Smits, like the Levinsons and the others, didn't have to go out of their way to help. But if they hadn't, they always would have wondered: What happened to that young girl? ... She was so talented.
"It's amazing to think that you can change a life," Mieke said.
She has a saying that she shares with Dasha: "We don't like to say 'What if?' We do."