Traditions of Ukraine: Dance

Ukrainian dance is a fast-paced, high energy carnival ride of leaps, kicks, twirls and bright colors. Much of what the world sees today as Ukrainian dance, however, is only part of the rich traditions of the Ukraine.

Dance has been a part of what is present day Ukraine since at least the 3rd millennium BC, as evidenced by Trypillian clay vessels depicting dancing figures. Before the introduction of Christianity, dance had a very important role in pre-Ukrainian ritual, which combined music and poetry with movement. Echoes of these ritual dances can be seen today in the Spring Dances, or Vesnianky (Becнянки). Another seasonal event marked by dance was the pre-harvest festival of Kupalo (Ніч на Купала), still a popular theme with Ukrainian choreographers.

Concurrent with the Ukraine’s Kozak, or Kozaky (Козаки́), uprisings, social dances began gaining popularity. Ukrainian social dances (Побyтовi танцi) are characterized by musical accompaniment, and increased improvisation.

The third major variety of traditional Ukrainian folk dance is thematic or story dances (Cюжетнi танцi). The story dances incorporated a high level of dramatic pantomime and stylized movement designed to entertain audiences.

Today, dance in the Ukraine consists primarily of what anthropologists and dance historians refer to as “Ukrainian Folk-Stage Dances” (Українськi Hapoднo-Cцeнiчнi Taнцi). This heavily stylized art form is a choreographed representation of traditional dance and movement, redesigned for concert dance performances.

Ukraine has many ethnocultural regions, most with its own music, dialect, form of dress, and dance steps which remain recognizable today. Just a few of these include:

Kozak Dances, represent the culture and traditions of the Ukrainian Kozaks, Poltava and other central Ukrainian lands surrounding the river Dnipro. Due to trade and invasion, the culture of central and eastern Ukraine is interwoven with many foreign influences. The greatest cultural influence to the region by far was that of the Kozaks, whose love of social dances created the famous Hopak, the Kozachok, and many other. Men’s costumes for these dances represent traditional Kozak dress: tall boots, a loose shirt, a sash tied around the waist, billowy riding trousers, and often even overcoats, hats, and swords. Women’s costumes include a heavily embroidered blouse, a skirt featuring intricate geometric and color patterns, and a headpiece of flowers and ribbons, called a vinok. All of these items vary from village to village, or can even depend on familial tradition. Koazk dances are highly acrobatic and physically demanding for the men, while women traditionally play something of a secondary role, though dancing in technically demanding unison.

Hutsul Dances, represent the culture and traditions of the Hutsulshchyna region. With the long dedication of Hutsul and Carpathian dance ensembles, Hutsul dance has developed into the second most-recognizable style of Ukrainian dance. Dancers of the Hutsul tradition can be recognized by their leather moccasins, known as postoly, and decorated vests, known as keptari. The men’s pants are not as loose as those in Kozak dance, and women’s skirts are comprised of individual front and back panels, which are tied at the waist. Traditionally, Hutsul costumes incorporate brown, orange, yellow, and green embroidery. The dances are known for energetic stomping and intricate footwork, combined with swift vertical movements. A well-known Hutsul dance is the Arkan, in which men dance around a fire.

Transcarpathian Dances, represent the culture and traditions of the Ukrainian Zakarpattia. Dance from this region is characterized by a bouncy tempo, colorful costumes and large sweeping movements and colorful costumes. A signature dance from this region is bereznianka.

Bukovynian Dances, represent the culture and traditions of Bukovyna, a highland region between Ukraine and Romania. This region has been ruled by the Romanian Principality of Moldavia, the Habsburg Empire, and the Tatars. Bukovynian dance often involes dichotomies and opposing themes, perhaps as a reflection of the transitional nature of the region. Women’s headpieces of this tradition are easily recognizable by their tall wheat stalks, ostrich feathers, or other unique vertical features. Costumes are embroidered with comparatively dark and heavy threads, and women’s skirts often are split at the front to reveal an embroidered slip.

Volyn’ Dances, represent the culture and traditions of Volyn’ in north-western Ukraine. This form of Ukrainian dance is characterized by high kicks, energetic jumping, and lively arms. It is possible to see the influences of nearby Poland in the traditional movement of Volyn’ dance.