Ukraine Dance: Fancy Footwork the Ukrainian Way

Energetic, fast-paced, boisterous, and exhausting, Ukrainian dance is as celebrated around the world as the pysanky Easter egg. Borrowed from pagan rites marking the passage of seasons, the roots of Ukrainian dance are deeply embedded in the landscape of the country. Spring dances called hahilky, hayilky, hayivky, yahilky, and rohulky and harvest festival celebrations remain a favorite theme of modern Ukrainian folk-stage choreographers.

Perhaps the most recognized form of traditional Ukrainian dancing is one that originated with the legendary Cossacks. Ukraine’s national dance, the “hopak”, incorporates the signature “duck kick”, achieved by squatting down to ground level, before exploding in a shoulder-high kick while linking arms. Women spin and encircle the men highlighting their acrobatic prowess in flamboyant costumes with billowing shirts and trousers, sashes, and boots. Born of drunken and occasionally violent celebrations after successful military campaigns, the Cossack dance is a feast of passion then and now.

A lesser known dancing tradition in the Hutsul region depends less on dramatic circular movements than on the rhythm of the feet and is characterized by quick stamping and intricate footwork. In a dance called the arkan, men dance around a fire while on the eve of Saint George’s day, girls dance a ritual named the lelia to invoke love and celebration of new life.

Over the centuries, all regions of Ukraine have developed, modified, and redesigned dance to suit their particular histories and struggles. The wide open spaces of the steppe regions birthed dramatic leaping, kicking, and circular movements. In closer geography, detailed footwork is the moniker. From the Transcarpathian region in the far western part of Ukraine to the Bukovyna secluded highland between Ukraine and Romania, the origins of dance, like the seeds of art, music, and literature, reflects the personal and political histories of a proud, passionate people.