Everyone who loves Ukrainian dance, probably knows of the Arkan dance. But do you know the story behind it?
Arkan dance was the key element in the ritual consacration of twenty-year-old guys in Hutsulschyna, symbolizing their transition into adulthood, into becoming a ‘lehin’ (aka a real man). After this ritual, one would get the right to participate in men’s dances, carry a ‘bartka’ or ‘topirets’ (ax and walking stick) and wear a wide belt (cheres). This ‘dance initiation’ also meant that a man was a potential ‘opryshko’.
Opryshky was the name for members of the peasant insurgency in Galicia, Transcarpathia and Bukovyna, against the Polish nobility, Moldavian boyars, Hungarian feudal lords, later - also against the Austrian administration. But there are also numerous legends about these ‘merry men’.
Once you travel to the Carpathian Mountains, you’re bound to hear of Oleksa Dovbush, who, basically was the Ukrainian ‘Robin Hood’! He was the leader of the ‘opryshky’, he would take from the rich and give to the poor and thus, naturally, was quite unpopular with the then authorities!
The name of the Arkan dance derives from the Latin ‘arcanus’ which means ‘hidden, secret, silent’, and there’s no wonder!!! Everything about Dovbush and the opryshky has a thick veil of secrecy around it.
These men would hide out in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains, they would mostly travel at night and keeping their ‘society’ secret was also of utmost importance. That’s also why getting into the troops of this army was a long and complex process. We’ll tell you the legend in a while, but first – about the dance!
The dance begins with all the men putting their hands on each other's shoulders, stands in a circle and starting to move, alternating big steps to the side with small jumps (this basic movement is called "Arkan"). There’s always a leader in the group, who signals the others to change moves and the rhythm with the help of some typical phrases. When the leader shouts "father’s sleeping" the dancers bow down and move as quietly as possible, with restrain, walk on the tips of their toes. Once he shouts "father’s up" they abruptly straighten, quickly and passionately continuing to dance.
Arkan contains various dance elements that really test the dancers, pushing them to work all muscle groups. These are the "Hayduk prysyadky" (a Hutsul type of squats where you you’re your knees together), "Hayduk-kruch" (a similar squat where you turn and twist your knees to the right or left), "prybyvky" (a characteristic kind of stomping), "pidkivky" ("holubets" – skipping, alternating your feet), as well as constant changes of the direction and rhythm of movement.
During the performance of "prysyadky" the leader can exclaim: "Hayduk one, Hayduk two, Hayduk three, and sit down lower, even more, now do a crooked one, and a blind one, and lower!" Do not forget that this whole set of dance movement is performed at an incredible pace.
In addition to physical fitness and endurance "Arkan" requires coordinated interaction from all participants, teamwork at its best! After all, if one of the dancers either slows down the rhythm of messes up a movement, the whole circle can break and, following the laws of physics of centrifugal force, everyone could literally fall apart, scattering in all directions.
So where did Arkan come from? Who brought it? This question will probably remain unanswered, but we do now where it came from. And that’s from the mountains!
Today one can find countless versions of "Arkan" produced by the very best directors of Ukrainian folk dance. These performances certainly differ, depending on the vision of the choreographers as well as the dancers, but the ‘core’ remains unchanged - the foundation - an ancient, mesmerizing dance of a future fighter, a man coming into his own. And despite the relentless passing of time, changing of trends, globalization, in a small village of Vipche, located high up in the Carpathian Mountains, there is a family, who still retains "Arkan" the way it was danced by their ancestors.
This year you have a unique opportunity to visit the Ilyuk family, see them perform the ancient "Arkan" and even learn it from these Hutsuls. And, in addition, you can participate in a dance workshop put on by the "Hutsuliya" ensemble in Ivano-Frankivsk. This way, you will be able to compare "Arkan" - its ancient and the stage versions, see the differences, and understand how dance evolved from the people to the professional, stage versions.
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Legend has it that the initiation process into Oleksa Dovbush's troops consisted of various stages, and here are just a few of them:
All day long the recruits would be fed extremely salty and spicy foods with nothing to drink and at the very end of the night they would be presented with a single glass of water. If one was greedy and eager to empty the glass at once, he would fail the test. But if one took their time and only took small sips of water at a time, he would then pass to the next round.
During this stage the recruits’ coordination and physical abilities were tested. They were supposed to cross a precipice over a raging mountain river by walking on a fallen tree, connecting the two sides. Their task was made more difficult, as the tree’s bark would be freshly peeled making the surface extremely slippery. If one failed to complete the task, they would suffer severe injuries or even death from the fall, otherwise – they would pass to the next round.
This stage was called for testing one’s stamina and the ability to withstand potential torture and interrogations. A recruit was supposed to take a piece of burning wood out of the bonfire and lock it in their palm, holding it tight inside until one could feel the smell of burning flesh. They were not supposed to cringe or whimper either. This task determined who would go through to the very initiation.
But even the initiation was a kind of a test!! The men were supposed to kneel down before Oleksa Dovbush and reach a hand out. Just like a monarch would use his sword to grant a knighthood title, Dovbush used his ‘topirets’ (ax) and pretended to his the recruit’s hand 3 times. If the recruit didn’t pull back, but firmly, with utmost trust, remained in their place, they would finally become an ‘opryshko’.