Sword dances in Dubrovnik and Dalmatia

From the 15th to the 18th century, in Dubrovnik and Dalmatia, the moreška and the cerchiata take the form of a battle amongst the characters, a weapon dance or a chain dance, and are parts of various dramatic performances. In this context, the performance hinged on the dramatic plot, while the battle and the dance were only an accompanying part. On the other hand, the moreška and the cerchiata also appear, in the more strict sense, as stylised representations of battle, that is, as weapon dances – dances derived from the battle of two opposing armies, in which the dramaturgical part is subordinate to the ritual conflict, the war dance. Writing about the sword dances and the dances with bows decorated with greenery and flowers – the cerchiatas, performed in Austria by male companies, R. Wolfram states that the movements, i.e. figures in both dances are the same, noting that the dance with bows is a somewhat newer form, derived from the sword dances. Indeed, the Dubrovnik constitution from the 12th century mentions masked characters, the karbonosi, dressed in short peasant coats – the schiavini and with blackened faces (in the Dubrovnik dialect: grabun – "charcoal"), and in the 14th century, the karbonosi appear together with masked characters called Žudjelo – "Jew", with whom they collide on the streets using weapons or wooden and stone clubs. Although it can be assumed that these two figures had a role in the medieval stagings of Christ's resurrection at Easter, it remains unclear whether they represented two confronted groups that performed a kind of armed battle similar to the moreška, in the context of the older pagan New Year's Day celebrations or the custom of choosing the king, which were spread throughout Dalmatia. Furthermore, in the 16th and 17th century, during Carnival, the Dubrovnik senate forbade masking into the barbaćep, i.e. a goatlike character or the character of a bearded monkey, as defined in Dictionary by Giovanni Torriano from 1659. The Carnival battles between two opposing sides (of which Ottomans were often one) were preserved in the carnival tradition of the Dubrovnik-area villages until the 20th century. The existence of the moreška in Dubrovnik from the 15th to the 17th century has been confirmed. It was primarily a part of the dramatic representations of pastoral, allegorical and mythological content, which revealed the influence of Italy – Siena and Rome. There, these types of musical plays were performed as intermedios to court performances. From high culture, they then entered the world of commoners through the influence of artisans, in the form of carnival pantomimes. In these staged conflicts, the props were not only swords, but also bows, arrows and staffs. The moreška was performed as part of the play Tirena by Marin Držić and the plays Pavlimir and Ipsila by Junije Palmotić. We know that Tirena, which was first performed in 1548 in front of the Duke's Palace and then in 1551 as part of a wedding celebration, included the moreška on the basis of a transcript of an older manuscript by Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski from 1840, in which he wrote: "Tirena – a comedy composed in Dubrovnik and presented in front of the Palace in 1548, which includes the moreška and the pastoral dance”. In the play, a battle is fought for the favour of the fairy Tirena, between three groups – two groups of shepherds and one group of satyrs. The pastoral dance cited here might have been a chain dance with two opposing lines of dancers. Considering that, in other parts of Dalmatia, the moreška and the cerchiata were often performed together and further considering the appearance of the character of Cupid at the very end of the play, it can be assumed that it was similar to the cerchiata – the tailors' dance with bows. Palmotić's Pavlimir, performed in 1632 by the Isprazni actors' troupe, was also staged in front of the Duke's Palace. In this work, the shepherds prepare for a battle with Pavlimir's band and perform a weapon dance as a kind of manoeuvre. However, unlike the standard moreška, this one is performed with bows and arrows. In his third work, Ipsila, performed in the 17th century, Palmotić clearly states that, unlike in his previous work, the moreška is to be performed with swords. The weapon dance takes place between two groups with five players each, one led by the queen Ipsila with her Lemnians and the other by Jason with the Argonauts.

In Split, the moreška takes the form of a staged battle, i.e. a weapon dance of the Ottomans and the Moors in honour of the victory over the Ottomans. As such, it was first mentioned in the 16th century, more precisely in September 1571, by Vicko Salitro in his work Povijesni dokumenti o Istri i Dalmaciji. According to his detailed account, on 28th September 1571, as part of the victory celebration, there was a race of barbarians and a staged battle between the Ottomans and the Moors, followed by a maidens' dance in front of the Ducal Palace and a fist fight of the bastaži – porters. Furthermore, it was recorded in 1770 as a play in the middle of which the artisans danced the weapon dance; in 1784, as a weapon dance performed together with the cerchiata by artisans; in 1818, as a moreška with the cerchiata in honour of the emperor Francis I; in 1822, as a moreška with the cerchiata; in 1838, as a moreška, while Valentino Lago, in his work Uspomene iz Dalmacije printed in 1869, describes the moreška from Split and Zadar performed several years earlier, adding to it the expression giostra – no longer a battle between the Ottomans and the Moors, but rather, between the Christians (dressed in folk costume) and the Ottomans, by which he was probably referring to the Zadar variant of the moreška. The Split variant of the moreška, which, according to Vjekoslav Radica's article "Moreška – igra o mačevanju" from 1897, was revived in 1887 and staged again in 1895, depicted the conflict of the Ottomans and the Moors in their elaborate costumes, whose components he described. In Zadar, as previously mentioned, the moreška represented the battle between Christians, that is, the local Croatian population called Morlaci, and the Ottomans. Just like the other types of moreška, this one was also primarily danced by artisans, woodworkers, shoemakers and tailors. The oldest record of it is from 1807, but it was probably danced as early as in the 17th century, whereas in 1870, it disappeared entirely from the folklore. Although the usual number of moreška dancers was 24, in Zadar, the moreška was also danced by 14 dancers. The moreška was performed in Šibenik, on Hvar (a dance known as Mač) and on Korčula in the 17th century, on Vis in the 18th and 19th century and in Trogir in the 19th century. Today, it is preserved only on Korčula and the records confirm that it was performed in the 18th century. The dramaturgical plot of the Korčula sword dance is known to us from three sources. The oldest one is the Kapor manuscript, discovered in the archives of the Kapor family, followed by the Arneri manuscript from the archives of the Arneri family and the Franasović manuscript from the archives of the Franasović family from Orebić. A more recent version of the text of the moreška, together with its Italian translation, La moresca, was printed in the printery of the Battara brothers in Zadar in 1869, and after that, the moreška was also the subject of the writings of Vid Vuletić Vukasović. The music that accompanied the Korčula moreška has been preserved as two pieces of musical notation from Split and three pieces of musical notation from Korčula from the 1870s, known as the Bogišić records, since they are kept in the Baltazar Bogišić Archives in Cavtat. The manuscript contains the full text of the moreška, very similar to the one performed today, namely, the one noted down in Battara's booklet, a list of figures in Italian, instructions on the tempo of the performance and three pieces of musical notation. It is interesting that in the first manuscript, the Kapor manuscript, the white dancers capture the fiancée of the black dancers or Moors and that a battle between the Christians and the Moors is presented, which reminds of the Spanish type of moreška. All newer records from Korčula mention a weapon dance between the Ottomans and the Moors/Arabs. In its present form, the moreška consists of the introduction and seven kolaps (figures). The introduction is the sfida, the first kolap is the rugier, the second kolap is the moreška, the third kolap is the finta, the fourth kolap are the subfigures moro in dentro and para pie, the fifth kolap is the križ, the sixth kolap is the rugier de fuorivia and the seventh kolap developed later from the moro in dentro subfigure. One more figure, called spagnoletta (španjoleta), was once danced after the križ, but as of 1891, it is no longer performed because of its complexity. Since 1947, the Korčula moreška has been performed to the music composed by Krsto Odak in 1937 and played by a brass band. The oldest figure of the Korčula moreška is most certainly the moreška of the second kolap, which was originally a dance adopted by the Spaniards from the Arabs or Moors. The name of the obsolete figure, spagnolette, alludes to a dance devised by the Spaniards, while the rugier figure contains a reference to its South Italian origin, that is, to the Norman king Rugiero, who appeared as a character in the region's local sword dances which represented the battles with the Saracens.


In its strict sense, the moreška, as a stylised representation of a battle between two opposing armies, was most certainly present in Dubrovnik in the 15th and 16th centuries, as part of the festivity of its patron saint, Saint Blaise. However, the first written documents which mention the moreška along with the maneuver which simulates the hoplomachia, that is, the rassegna or ordinanza, a military review before the duke and his retinue, date back to the 17th and 18th century. Participation in it was obligatory for men from 16 to 36 years of age. Although some authors hold that the hoplomachia first appeared in Dubrovnik in 1383, that competition was, in fact, the so-called palij, a prize competition with bows and cross-bows in honour of Saint Blaise. In his travel book from 1664, the Frenchman Quiclet, who visited Dubrovnik on his way to Constantinople in 1658, writes that a manoeuvre was performed on the afternoon of the festivity of St. Blaise in front of the Palace. He writes about the hoplomachia, the alka and the moreška, while the Frenchman Sieur Poullet describes the performance of a chivalrous weapon dance with movable fortresses. Considering that an undated notice kept in the library of the Franciscan Monastery under the title Indicazione di tutti i movimenti della moresca makes mention of a fortress in the 6th and 9th dance figure—“6) Ottomans in the fortress; Moors in the fortress; Ottomans in the fortress, 9) Fortress from the inside and outside”—this could indicate that a fotress was indeed part of the scenery, if unless it is only a symbolic expression denoting a choreographic figure. In his work Alcune Pagine su Ragusa from 1881, Augusto Kaznačić writes that, as part of their tour of the city during the festivity of St. Blaise, military formations stopped three times in certain key places to bow and perform Spanish-style dances; after the third tour, a figured battle was performed, starting with the counter-captain attacking the captain, who would, nevertheless, win in the end. Although the feigned battle was probably performed by all members of the battle units, there was also a separate figure in which the captain and the counter-captain parleyed and fought each other, equipped with spears and shields. After the counter-captain was forced to make the final retreat, the battle unit would hail the victory of the captain and the surrender of the opponent. This weapon dance must have also included beating the spears on the shields in order to produce a certain atmosphere of fear, as well as the figures of the attack, the defence and the victory, accompanied by the beating of the drums. If we take into consideration the data presented by A. A. Le Maire in his work O Dubrovniku i Dubrovčanima from 1766, according to which the role of the counter-captain was performed by the person who had played the captain the year before, such weapon dances could be seen as symbolical of the victory of the new over the old in the light of cosmic, agrarian and social regeneration. In the 18th century, military reviews with accompanying elements of a ritual conflict of the opposing sides gained even more significance and also appear under the name scaramuccia, which denoted a short battle with an uncertain outcome.

At the end of the 18th century, along with the Dubrovnik weapon dances, the Dubrovnik theatre also featured performances of the Korčula weapon dance moreška, which can be inferred from the conclusion of the Small Council of 30th December 1791. Two more sources on the moreška kept in the library of the Dubrovnik Franciscan Monastery have also stirred interest. The first one, under number 1118, is a list of figures of the moreška and the cerchiata under the title Razgovor aliti prikazanje bojniem Kolom nazvanim Moreska, which can be dated back to the period between the 17th and the 19th century. After a brief dialogue in which the slave-girl is the central character, there follows a battle between the blacks, which have been identified as the Tartars, and the Christians. Although Vinko Foretić holds that this moreška is from Korčula, its origin remains unknown. The second undated source is the already mentioned notice describing the battle between the Ottomans and the Moors and listing the figures of the moreška: 1) Primo colpo, 2) Stoccata, 3) Crociera ai Mori o (Cavalieri), 4) Matta va e toma, 5) Matta sotto pie, 6) Turchi in Castello; Mori in Castello; Turchi in Castello, 7) Corona sopra la testa, 8) Taglio a mezza vita, 9) Castello entro e fuori, 10) Crociera sopra la testa, 11) Para e porta, 12) Marconi and 13) Badin. Although the origin of this moreška is also unknown, we should bear in mind that both if these sources were discovered in Dubrovnik. Considering the number of its figures, Foretić assumes that the latter is a Split moreška. It should also be mentioned that the presence of the cerchiata is, in itself, indicative of the presence of the moreška, since they were often performed along each other on our coast.


Although chain dances are a common characteristic of the Mediterranean, on the territory of Croatia, most of the dances belonging to this group which are still performed can be found in the Dubrovnik-Neretva County. Apart from the already described moreška in the city of Korčula, there are also the moštras – reviews or chain weapon dances, today known also as kumpanijas, after the eponymous companies from the villages of Blato, Čara, Pupnat, Vela Luka, Smokvica and Žrnovo. In the past, the kumpanijas were linked to the organisation of village government and the custom of choosing the king, while their origin can be traced back to the Roman saturnalia. Other interpretations connect them to the more ancient fertility rites of agrarian and chtonic content. The original function of the kumpanijas was to protect the village from robbers and pirates. The performance of a chain sword dance – the kumpanija, accompanied b the tambourin and the diple bagpipe, differs from the moreška in that it does not demonstrate an actual battle between the two sides, but primarily the dancers' skill. The custom of performing the kumpanija once included the ritual beheading of an ox and joint dining. The kumpanijas were danced at saints' festivities and the Carnival and their choreography consisted of several punats (figures). Thus, the punats in Čara are uvod, drugi punat, prolaženje, spuž, spuž, šesti punat, sedmi punat, kućica, dupla kosa, injula kosa, najteži punat, škrimavanje, druga škrima. In terms of choreography, the Korčula kumpanijas are very similar to the German dances Schwerttanzen, although these contain two additional figures – the lifting of the speaker (musician) on a pedestal of joined swords and the surrounding of a dancer or fool with swords pointed at their neck during the performance of the figure of the spiral. Two more dances from the wider Dubrovnik area fall under the category of sword dances – the Pokladarsko kolo from the island of Lastovo and the Kolo bijelih maškara from Putniković in Pelješac. Three main components of the Carnival on Lastovo are the Carnival procession, the Carnival swinging and the Pokladarsko kolo. The Pokladarsko kolo is danced on the last Tuesday of the Carnival, known as Ultime, in the city square. It is danced by men dressed in Carnival costumes with wooden swords – sabres (which were once metal) accompanied by a musician—the sonatur—playing the lijerica. The dance consists of nine figures: voltavanje, pasa prima, hitanje za sabje, sotto, sotto i preskakanje sabji, kolovođa preko glave, spož, spož oko Poklada, spož škermom. The Lastovo Carnival was described in the 19th century by Melko Lucijanović, whose writings are kept in the Baltazar Bogišić Archives in Cavtat, and in 1888 by Luka Zore. According to legend, the Pokladarsko kolo evokes the battle between the inhabitants of Lastovo and the Ottomans, or between the inhabitants of Lastovo and the Katalani (Moors or Saracens). The memory of these battles is preserved in the character of the Carnival with a blackened face, which is swung, lowered down an uza – a rope – and ritually chopped up and burnt. Another dance is danced along with the Pokladarsko kolo in Lastovo on Shrove Tuesday – the Kolo lijepih maškara, in which the dancers hold kerchiefs in their hands instead of sabres. The choreography of this wheel dance follows all the figures of the Pokladarsko kolo which can be performed, i.e. four of them. The tradition of the Kolo bijelih maškara ("Wheel Dance of the White Maskers") or the so-called svatovka from Putniković can be traced back to the 19th century, but it is very likely older than that. The last Kolo bijelih maškara was danced in 1964 and the tradition was revived in 1996. The custom is connected to the tale of an engaged young man who, after escaping from Turkish captivity, arrives masked with his sabred company in order to marry his fiancée, who had stayed true to him for many years, which is why this dance is defined as a wedding sword dance. The procession of the white maskers is held on the Quinquagesima, before the last Carnival, and it is performed by pairs – 6 male and 6 female roles, all of which are played by men. The men are dressed in white trousers and shirts with a leather belt and they carry sabres and wear hats with decorative ribbons, while the women are dressed in blue skirts and white shirts and also wear hats decorated with ribbons. All the dancers cover their faces with white veils. When they arrive in a village, they dance on the threshing floor. Since the dance is danced in two opposite lines, it is a combination of a wedding chain dance and the elements of a contra dance. The first in the line of men is the bannerman, who wears a red suit and carries a flag decorated with flowers. He is followed by the steward, who has a red ribbon along one trouser leg. He is followed by the bridegroom, who can be recognised by a dark floral-pattern kerchief which is tied across his left shoulder and under his right arm, and the rest of the dancers. In the female line, only the bride can be distinguished by her pink shirt and the jewellery around her neck. She stands opposite the bridegroom. The dance is announced by a shot from the flintlock. The Kolo bijelih maškara consists of several figures, all of which start with the steward thumping his foot on the floor, and in the initial position, the two lines of dancers stand opposite each other. Before the performance of the initial figure, the male dancers rest their sabre on their shoulder, the steward leads the bride out of the line and seats her on a chair by the end of the threshing floor. After this, he performs a review of the dancers and waves his sword to signal the handover of the review to the bridegroom, who, after completing it, comes to the bride, takes her by the hand and leads her to her place in the female line. After this, the men raise their sabres and start performing the following figures: joining and separation, passing by and separation, joining and separation, passing by and separation, men forward, women forward, joining and separation, joining, women backward and men forward, men backward and women forward, men forward and women backward to the centre, separation, joining – placing the sabres in their sheaths and separation. In every figure in which the men go forward, they cross swords once with the dancer next to them in line. After the Kolo bijelih maškara, the dancers dance the polka with the women from the audience. The tradition of the Kolo bijelih maškara is kept alive today by the Putnikovići Culture and Art Society from Putniković in Pelješac. Finally, worthy of mention is also the chain dance of the Boka Bay Navy, which performs its Wheel Dance of Saint Tryphon at the festivity celebrating the saint, on 3rd February, the same day when the citizens of Dubrovnik celebrate St. Blaise. The choreographic structure of this dance is similar to that of the previously mentioned ones, but instead of using swords or sabres as props, the dancers hold kerchiefs in pairs. This wheel dance has 12 figures: the proper whirl, the reverse whirl, the irregular chain, the proper chain, the anchor, the big wheel, two wheels, wheel within wheel, the eight, the spiral, the reverse spiral, the spiral around the officers.