Judging by the figures depicted in motion on Trypillian clay vessels, dance has been performed in the lands of present-day Ukraine since at least the third millennium BC. It has been assumed that up to the introduction of Christianity in Kievan Rus’ in 988, dance served a very important ritual function in the lands of present-day Ukraine. Pre-Christian rituals combined dance with music, poetry, and song. A remnant of these ritual dances (Ukrainian: Oбpядовi танцi, translit. Obryadovi tantsi; see also Khorovody) which survive in limited form today are the Spring Dances, or Vesnianky, also referred to as Hahilky, Hayilky, Hayivky, Yahilky, or Rohulky. Another seasonal event featuring dances was the yearly pre-harvest festival of Kupalo, which to this day remains a favorite theme for Ukrainian choreographers.
These religious ritual dances proved to be so strongly ingrained into the culture of the people prior to the introduction of Christianity, that rather than attempting to eliminate them, Christian missionaries incorporated Christian themes into the songs and poetry which accompanied the dancing, using the dances to spread their religion, as well as enabling millennia-old steps and choreographic forms to continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
At about the time of Ukraine’s Kozak uprisings, social dances became more and more popular with the people native to the lands of present-day Ukraine. Ukrainian social dances (Ukrainian: Побyтовi танцi, translit. Pobutovi tantsi) can be distinguished from the earlier Ukrainian ritual dances by two characteristics: the prevalence of musical accompaniment without song, and the increased presence of improvisation. The early Hopak and Kozachok developed as social dances in the areas surrounding the Dnipro River, while the Hutsulka and Kolomyjka sprang up in the Carpathian mountains to the west. Eventually, social dances of foreign extraction such as the Polka and Quadrille also gained in popularity, developing distinct variations after having been performed by native dancers and musicians gifted in improvisation.
The third major type of Ukrainian folk dancing which developed prior to the modern era were the thematic or story dances (Ukrainian: Cюжетнi танцi, translit. Siuzhetni tantsi). The story dances incorporated an artistically sophisticated level of pantomime and movement which entertained audiences. Thematic story dances told the story of a particular group of people through movements which mimicked their work; such dances included Shevchyky (Ukrainian: Шeвчики, “the shoemakers”), Kovali (Ukrainian: Koвaлi, “the blacksmiths”), and Kosari (Ukrainian: Kocaрi, “the reapers”).
By the turn of the eighteenth century, many of these traditional dances began to be performed, or referred to thematically, by a blossoming theatrical trade. Peasant or Serf Theaters entertained the subjucated native peoples of present-day Ukraine, who remained relegated to lower social classes in their own homelands, while their foreign rulers often lived lavishly in comparison, importing foreign entertainers and their dances. It is within this context that staged Ukrainian folk dances, which depicted the ideals of an agrarian society, gained even more popularity with the native population, which further developed the theater into a thriving occupation.