Cossacks were traditionally known for their prowess in battle and remarkable equestrian skills. For centuries, Ukraine had been in the midst of a tug of war between Europe and Russia. When the latter took it over, making it a part of what used to be USSR, these warriors were treated as nothing more than barbaric rural dwellers with little culture and etiquette.
Lost In Time
Consequently, the warrior culture was all but lost barring those who served in the Russian army. With it was lost an indigenous Cossack martial art. Perhaps in an attempt to retain some part of the culture, the art was depicted in a dance form. So it remained for a couple of centuries.
Hopak is widely recognized (particularly within the Slavic, Tatar and Caucasian circles) as a traditional Ukrainian dance. Within the movements reside a multitude of techniques that may once have defined the fighting style of the free-roaming Cossack warriors who loathed serfdom, took pride in living free, and defended that freedom with honour.
In the mid 1980's, a man named Volodymyr Pylat - an expert Karateka - delved deeper into the movements of Hopak dance. In it, he identified a wealth of strikes, kicks and combinations that would be excellent in combat. To take his research further, in 1985 he founded the Experimental School for the Study and Research of Ukrainian Fighting Culture - an institute dedicated to retracing the Cossacks' martial culture back to its roots.
In the years that followed, Pylat researched widely, and even authored a number of books on Ukraine's lost fighting traditions. Soon, the art of Boyovyi Hopak - literally translated as "Combat Hopak" was (re)born. At his school, Pylat not only taught his newly re-invented martial art, but through the practice of this art, encouraged students to live a healthy life, free of vices and bad influence. So strict was the discipline and emphasis on general well-being and the development of good character, that if a student failed to quit smoking and drinking within weeks of enrolling, he was asked to leave!
Modern Day Practice
Thirty years on, Combat Hopak has gained popularity amongst Ukrainians. In spite of the vast popularity of conventional martial arts like Karate, Jiu Jutsu, etc. in Ukraine, in the last two decades, the interest in Combat Hopak has really grown. Inevitably, the art has spread its wings into other cities around the world that have a sizeable Ukrainian population.
Amongst them, Chicago and Toronto have the most prominent Combat Hopak schools. Most of the senior instructors have backgrounds in other martial arts, but have now diverted their focus back to their roots, and have dedicated themselves to perfecting their indigenous martial art, and reviving this warrior culture and tradition amongst today's Cossack descendants.