The Hopak, also known as Cossack dancing, originated in southern Russia and Ukrainian military communities in the 1600s. When the Cossacks would return from battle, the men would celebrate through this improvised dance. Community musicians would gather their instruments, including violins, bagpipes and flute-like fifes, and join the others in a celebratory performance named the hopaky.
During the 16th century, the Ukraine went through a long period of struggle for independence, mostly against the Ottoman Empire (1657-1709) and the Russian Empire (1686-1709.) During this time, the soldiers in an area called Sich, now a Ukrainian reservoire, began returning home after battle victorious. As a way to celebrate, these ordinary military men would begin dancing and re-enacting their battle scenes for the community to see. They began pantomiming using their swords and other weapons, as local musicians would join them in their dance. The men then began to improvise, performing acrobatics in the air as well as other masculine moves such as squats in order to prove their manliness and heroism. This style of movement is what gave this dance the name Hopak, being derived from the Ukraine verb “hopaty” meaning to jump.
Throughout this dance, the performers were able to change their tempo at any time, given that this showing was improvisational. The musicians’ pace was based off of the dancers’ choices, allowing them to express their individuality. Though the music didn’t have a specifically set tempo nor melody, Hopak music is usually set in a 2/4 time arrangement. The music would typically progress to an almost furious level towards the end of the dance, ending with a bang. The accompaniment for the dance usually would include a Kobzar, or singer, who would perform and chant alongside the instruments. Violins and bagpipes are included in the accompaniment as well as a fife, or a flute-like pipe, and a cimbalom. This instrument is similar to a dulcimer, which lays flat and has metal strings that are hammered to produce a vibrating sound. Over time, the Hopak music would evolve and begin being composed for operas and ballets, such as the opera “Mazepa”, written by none other than Tchaikovsky.
The dance also progressed further throughout history. What started out as a strictly all male dance in the Sich, became a far more complex festivity for everyone. Although males still asserted the lead role in the dance, when the dance began spreading into surrounding villages, it was soon acceptable for young boys and girls as well as women to join in the dance. This mixed-gender version of the Hopak would become superior when the Sich was destroyed in the late 18th century.
The overall structure of the dance evolved as well, including the addition of partner formations and the circular formation of the whole group. This most likely derived from the celebrations within Ukraine communities. Today, the Hopak has changed its values to fit a more modern day perception of dance performance, being that it only appears improvisational. Most of the dance is performed in unison, as the women spin and the men squat repeatedly. The acrobatic aspect of the Hopak has been amped up and performed by male soloists, executing high leaps, turns, and split jumps as the climax of the performance. The dance overall has come to be known as a continuous presentation of energy and celebration.
Zerebecky, Bohdan (1985). Ukrainian Dance Resource Booklets, Series I-IV, Ukrainian Canadian Committee, Saskatchewan Provincial Council.
By Kara Foote