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Most of us would agree that it would be safe to say that dancing and all the different types of dances are somewhat of an integral part of everyday life in both modern days, as well as throughout the history of man kind. Although dancing was, is and probably will remain a well known phenomenon, not many of us would picture the dance floor filled with dancers waving around with their sharp swords. However, for the people of Korcula Island blades are an important part in their abundant and quite interesting heritage so this would be a perfect moment to say – welcome to the island of sword dancers!
The island of Korcula happens to have preserved a number of great and various traditions, but probably the most fascinating is connected with the performance of different dances with swords. Korcula distinguishes two main types of these rare dances and it is probably a unique place in the world where in such a small geographic area two different types of sword dances existed that are preserved to this very day: linked dance (also called chain-dance) with swords or “Kumpanjija” and battle sword dance or “Moreska”. Almost every town and village on the island has its own dance society that performs one of the several varieties of these attractive sword dances – the town of Korcula has two societies which perform “Moreska”, while “Kumpanjija” societies exist in Blato, Pupnat, Cara and Smokvica, and there is also “Mostra” society in Zrnovo.
In the year 1997 the Tourist Board of Korcula founded the Festival of Sword Dances with the aim of promoting the rich heritage of the island’s sword dancing and presenting the dances in their original ambience in both Korcula Town and the villages across the island. Therefore the Festival was established in the town to further cultivate the tradition of sword dancing that has existed here for more than 400 years, but also to bring together the performing societies from the whole island of Korcula, form other parts of Croatia and from other areas of the world to develop friendly relationships and mutual cooperation and to support further advancement of sword dance societies.
The sword dance “Moreska” is Korcula Town’s proudest tradition and one of the most unusual customs in Adriatic region. At one time this „fighting dance“ was prevalent in southern Europe and it probably began in Spain as a form of protest against the Moorish (hence the name) occupation, migrating to Korcula somewhere in the 16th or 17th century. Essentially, it’s a danced version of a sword battle which tells the story of an abducted princess and although the dance was performed in many Mediterranean towns throughout the 19th century, now it is only performed in Korcula Town. Traditionally, it was only performed on St. Theodore’s Day (Korcula Town’s patron saint) on July 29, but now it is a major tourist attraction so its annual performance has been transformed into a regular show, usually held every Monday and Thursday evenings from June until September at the open-air cinema beside the Land Gate. Tickets for the show are available in most of the travel agencies in town, so be sure to get yours on time because the performances are usually sold out in advance.
Another famous and attractive sword dance characteristic for the island of Korcula is “Kumpanjija”. Since Kumpanjija started as a local militia that in the past protected the villages from invading attacks, certain military elements are also preserved in its tradition and therefore the Kumpanjija from Korcula Island is much richer in its sword figures than most European sword chain-dances. One can best experience the custom of Kumpanjija in its original ambience so these sword dances are preformed throughout the island on both the patron saint’s day of the particular village or town and also during the summer months for tourists and visitors. It consists of the sword dance, the election of the king, the ceremony of animal sacrifice (usually an ox) and also customs connected with winter carnival ceremonies, such as a dance ball following the sword dance part.
The contemporary way of life and other social and cultural influences contribute to the changing roles of Kumpanjija and Moreska. Their performances are more frequent due to tourism and the ceremonies of animal sacrifices have been abandoned and reduced to symbolism many decades ago. However, there is an overall tendency among the performers and also the local people for preserving their traditions that emphasize the island’s identity so all the changes of the original customs are kept as fewer as possible.
Moreska is the name of the battle sword dance from the town of Korcula that likely derives from the Italian word „moresca“ (meaning “Moorish song”), while its origin is considered to be Spain. The two opposing sides of battling dancers were originally Moors and Christians, recalling the Spanish battles from the period of “Reconquista” in the Middle Ages and the several hundred years of battle between Muslims and Christians in Spain. By the 16th century the dance theme with mock battles was introduced into the American continents and other world areas administered or culturally influenced by Spain, while this name and type of a mock fighting dance connected with the Moors was also widespread in much of Europe. The dance was performed in several areas of the Mediterranean region, describing the battle between Christians and non-Christians, the Spanish people against the Moors or the Ottomans against the Moors, as it is represented in Moreska from Korcula Town. This version also appears to be the only one in modern times where two swords are held by each soldier (called “Moreskant”) in the elaborate mock battles performed in seven stages.
The performance itself consists of an introductory part („sfida“) and seven fighting figures („kolaps“). The introduction is in fact a short drama presenting the story of Moreska and its participants: the Black King (named Moro) and his soldiers, the White King (named Osman) and his soldiers (actually dressed in red costumes) and the heroine – Osman’s fiancée, Bula. Basically, it is a story of a conflict between two kings and their armies over the love of a beautiful woman. The play begins with the scene in which Moro abducts Bula, followed by a short dialogue in which Bula rejects Moro’s love and declares her love for Osman so the White King with his army comes to the scene with the intention to liberate his fiancée. Moro challenges Osman to fight for Bula’s love while waving his swords and Osman accepts the challenge, making the other soldiers gradually engage themselves in the battle and marking the transition from the drama part to the romantic and ritualized sword battle with a pause after each sword-clashing figure when the dancers walk around in a circular formation preparing themselves for the next stage of the battle. In the meantime Bula tries to reconcile the two kings, but even a more fierce battle follows. Finally, the mock battle dance ends with a figure in which black soldiers fall exhausted in front of the white ones. Moro recognizes his defeat, unchains Bula and gives back to the White King his beloved fiancée. The battle symbolizes a conquest of good over evil and also sends a universal message of the power of true love.
In the past Moreska was accompanied only by a drum (called „tamburin“), but at the beginning of the 20th century band music was added and currently preferred musical accompaniment is a full brass band with music especially composed for Moreska in 1937 by the famous Croatian composer Krsto Odak. Moreska was and remained an important tradition to the people of Korcula. To be a part of it was a matter of honor and things related to it (such as costumes or weapons) were passed from fathers to their sons. The roles of kings were especially valued and dancers performing those roles were allowed to keep the costume’s crowns after retirement. However, a great tragedy struck this tradition when the massive destruction of World War II reached Korcula – all instruments and musical scores, costumes and swords, almost everything was destroyed in frequent bombings and young people left the island, joining the ranks of military. But even this huge setback was not the end of Moreska. Seeing how disastrous it would be for Croatia to lose such a valuable cultural and historical heritage, a local barber teamed up with a teacher, a policeman and an orchestra conductor to train twelve-year old boys how to perform this ancient dance and only thanks to their initiative and great effort Moreska survived until today.
Before World War II Moreska was performed once a year on the day of St. Theodore on July 29 and back then it was a special event prepared for many weeks with the performance itself that lasted for two hours. After the end of the war and in the times that followed, the dancing with its drama parts was shortened to around thirty minutes due to the frequency of performances, but today’s Moreska from Korcula is definitely one of the most attractive sword dances you can see in Europe.
With great enthusiasm and hard work of the town’s youthful dancers, the dance of Moreska was revived after the liberation of Korcula in 1944, toward the end of World War II. All activity related to Moreska was unified into a “K.U.D.” (stands for Cultural Artistic Society), while the progress of Moreska as a dance performance (along with other activities of this K.U.D.) was mainly influenced by the increasing popularity enabled by the fast development of the tourism on the island, thus arising the need for frequent performances and tours. The K.U.D. is consisted of Moreska dance group, a music band and a folk dance group.
Nowadays, Moreska is performed at least 50 times throughout the year on Korcula Island, other places in Croatia and also abroad, allowing the K.U.D. Moreska to continue its development and to grow in numbers of both members and performances.
In the past, the inhabitants of the island of Korcula have organized a local militia to defend themselves from the constant threats coming from different invaders, pirates and marauders. This so-called people’s army was named “Kumpanjija” and its first written proof can be found in the “Statute of the town and island of Korcula” from the year 1214 and it defended the islanders all the way up to 19th century when the regular army recruiting begins. At that point the tradition of this militia is transformed into a performance – a sword dance or also called knight’s battle dance so today the name “Kumpanjija” stands for both the dance and the society of men which preserves a variety of customs and rituals. It is believed that the dance itself contains old ceremonial elements from European medieval chain-dances, but also elements influenced from the area of Dinara Mountain on the mainland, along with the sword fighting skills seen in Moreska.
This old knightly ritual dance with long swords is mostly performed in the town of Blato, but also in few other villages on the island (with slight differences): Cara, Pupnat and Smokvica. It is accompanied by a dialogue at the beginning, playing the “misnice” (a local version of bagpipes) and drums. The dancers are exclusively men, dressed in old and richly decorated costumes, who perform 18 intricate dance figures ending with the sword duels. The dance represents a fight between the army of enemies led by character named „Serdar“ and the domestic army led by „Kapitan“ (translated “Captain”), with especially interesting and attractive dance of the flag-bearer waving a large flag up to 3 meters long. In some occasions, after the performance of Kumpanjija ends, a traditional dance ball follows. The women who participated in the ball, also dressed in old traditional costumes, were mostly the relatives of the sword dancers (called „kompanjoli“) and in Blato this couple’s dance is called „Blatski tanac“ (translated “The Dance of Blato”), in Pupnat and Zrnovo „Stari bal“ (translated “Old Ball”), and in Cara and Smokvica „Tanac“ (translated “The Dance”).
Founded in the year 1927 in the town of Blato, V.U. (stands for Knights’ Association) Kumpanjija has a primary mission of preserving and cultivating the sword dance of the same name, but also the rich cultural heritage of Blato like traditional costumes, music instruments, songs, other dances, old recipes etc. Within its program for tourists, the society performs the sword dance Kumpanjija, a couple’s dance from the 17th century named “Blatski tanac”, a set of carnival dances, the pastoral dance „Kotiljun“ and the “dance for four” – “Kvadrilja“.
The main annual appearance of the V.U. Kumpanjija is on 28th of April – the Day of St. Vincenca (the patron saint of Blato) and also the Day of the municipality of Blato, when their performance is completely according to the original and traditional rules and techniques.
Since its foundation in 1927 until today, this society appeared on more than 100 international festivals throughout Europe, with a first such appearance in 1934 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. They delighted the audience wherever they performed and presented their program, but also receiving the highest state awards and plaques for the work and effort of preserving cultural heritage of Blato.
Kumpanjija also had a rich tradition in the village of Smokvica, performing during carnival festivities and on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption (August 14) on the church square. These customs were renewed in 1954, while in 1978 with the founding of K.U.D. „Ante Ćefera“ Smokvica gets an independent Kumpanjija society that continues to be active to the present time. In the past the length of Kumpanjija performance lasted up to three hours, while today in its full celebratory form with all 18 figures the dance lasts for one and a half hour.
Although Kumpanjija from the village of Pupnat is one of the oldest on the island, it was performed with several intermissions in recent times. Before World War II it was last organized in 1939 and after the war in 1949, while in 1996 it was revived again with great enthusiasm and approval from both the local people and visitors.
Kumpanjija was performed during carnival events and during the religious holiday of Our Lady of Rosary (the first Sunday in October), but after the revival in 1996 Kumpanjija event was set to be performed for the Feast of Our Lady of the Snow (August 5), the patron saint of the village.
In the village of Cara, the oldest written documents from the end of the 19th century emphasize the need to preserve Kumpanjija as a permanent value for all later generations. According to the tradition from the 19th century, Kumpanjija was performed five or six times per year – on Candlemas (February 2), several times during carnival period, St. Peter’s Day on June 29 and for the day of St. Jacob on July 25, the protector of Cara.
In the 20th century, Kumpanjija in Cara was performed infrequently, but after World War II Kumpanjija was revived in 1953 and continues to be performed to the present day.
The oldest written document about Kumpanjija from the village of Zrnovo is the Statute from 1620 which bears the title „The Law of Kumpanjija in the Village of Zrnovo“. Throughout history Kumpanjija was performed during carnival days along with the customs of singing carols, sacrificing an ox and the couple’s dance named „Stari bal“, followed by a collective village feast. The title „Mostra“ was accepted from the Italian word which means a military review.
Before World War II Mostra was performed until 1937 and then it was revived again in 1966 with an entire set of customs that also included the sacrifice of an ox. In recent years, Mostra is performed in an abbreviated version with chain sword dance figures and clashing sword figures, followed by the couple’s dance „Stari bal“. The main annual performance is held on the feast of St. Rocco (August 16), the protector of Postrana, a hamlet just outside of Zrnovo.
Although we tried to give you as much information to better illustrate this interesting and attractive tradition that exists on the island of Korcula and bring it closer to you with some colorful photos, remember that all these remarkable dances can only be fully experienced when seen in a live performance. So if you are visiting Korcula or you plan to visit it sometimes soon, be sure not to miss out their frequent summer events, especially the festivals in the towns of Blato and Korcula – we are sure that you will enjoy it just like we did too.
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