Wheel dance and the cultural and historical context of performance

The history of dance in the Dubrovnik area can be, owing to different sources and rare, but valuable, archive records, tracked from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque, classicism and romanticism, to the 20th century. The dance heritage of Dubrovnik reflects primarily in the dance culture of the West European and Mediterranean countries, and comprises court (learned) and popular (national) dance traits. A specific place in the dance repertoire of the Middle Ages in these areas is most certainly held by the wheel dance. Already in the 12th century the rural population of the narrower Dubrovnik hinterland, and soon afterwards the citizens themselves, plebeians, enjoyed wheel dances accompanied by appropriate songs in Slavic language. In the 12th and 13th centuries, throughout Western Europe, dances such as our wheel dance were performed, carrying different names – carole, carola, rondoe, reigen. Such dances were accompanied by sung verses which were usually performed by a wheel leader, while the others repeated the verses, that is, joined him in singing. In written sources, wheel dances, under the Latin term choreas, appeared for the first time in this area in a record from 1344 in Zadar. They were mentioned In Zadar also in 1402, and with the wheel dance, a three step dance was also mentioned. Since singing is mentioned along with the wheel dances, it can be assumed that those were sung dances. Performance of the dances, which was characterized by vigorous stomping on the ground and the accompanying song, in addition to Zadar, was also recorded in the 15th century in Šibenik by Juraj Šižgorić in his work On the location of Illyria and the city of Šibenik (orig. O smještaju Ilirije i grada Šibenika). In the same century, the first record of the Croatian name of the wheel dance – collo, by the poet of Marko Marulić, and then in 1515 in a Dubrovnik Act, and again in 1691 in a dictionary entitled On the Treasures of the Slavic Language (orig. Blago jezika slovinskoga ) by Jakov Mikalja.

Slavic customs and songs in the early 13th century already caught deep roots in the once Roman-characterised culture of Dubrovnik. The largest number of those spread by marital relations. In order to prevent stronger impact of rural, i.e. Slavic culture, the 1235 Law – Ordo de nuptiis - forbid a whole range of wedding practices which started to penetrate the urban area. Based on the records from that Law we find about many elements of the wedding customs. Namely, we now know that weddings lasted for several days, and friends stayed at the bridegroom’s home for eight days. On the wedding day, the groom sent to the bride's house a piece of mutton meat and other food, a special wedding-cake was prepared, and the bride went to Ilija's head where she welcomed and attended to guests. This place could have had a specific symbolical meaning in the context of pre-Christian beliefs, or it functioned as a liminal area, a place of the first entry to the city and a border organised and wild, urban and rural. In the wedding procession, they carried a jug of water, an iron chair and ram's skin, and behind the bride the wedding party carried a spinning wheel, and she was given presents in the form of chickens, napkins and rings. When she arrived in her new home, the bride was offered a spoonful of honey, and then the bridegrooms would give presents to those who helped them to take off their ceremonial clothes. The Law applied only to the territory of the city, and all those who married outside of the city were free to do as they wished. Ordo de nuptiis forbade certain customs which started to penetrate the city as novelties, and that there were certain customs which were allowed and ingrained is evident from the conclusion from the 20th April 1304. However, in that year another ban was pronounced which refers to the Slavic origin of some elements of dress. It forbade the bride to wear a horned kerchief – cornua. It was a Slavic element, as can be clearly read in a record from the 14th century, in which the kerchief is mentioned as frontale and sclauonicum de peruis et de croallis in argentos or corvelo i sive cronua slavica argenti. The wedding celebrations in the 16th century were accompanied by cheerful wheel dances. We find that out from the bar on performing wheel dances which maids or young men performed on streets when going to get the groom and his bringing to the wedding, and was issued by the Dubrovnik government in 1515. In the 17th century there was dancing and singing before the door of the St. Simeon church, performed by free women for amusement of shoemakers and soldiers. It was also recorded that small business owners and peasants in 1697, just before the Midsummer day, danced in front of the church of the Little Brothers.

By continuing the tradition of ritual dances, the wheel dances - as a folk element and a reflection of identity - through the process of converting to Christianity and growth of church organisation in the Middle Ages - entered the churches as well, and some were even incorporated in liturgy. This occurrence in the Middle Ages was recorded all over the Western Europe. During the periods of humanism and the Renaissance, folk elements of culture were expelled from sacral to public areas, whereby the liturgy, as well as the sacral areas, were cleared from the medieval folklore. In Dubrovnik, bans on wheel dances appeared in the 14th century and in the first half of the 15th century. Thus the Dubrovnik senate in 1420 in 1425 forbade wheel dances and singing of secular song in the cathedral. Regardless of the ban in the 15th century, a long tradition of wheel dances on saint's days continued near the churches, in halls and on squares in front of the churches, in lodges and decks, which continued until the 20th century. Apart from the peasants and the plebeians, the clergy also participated in dance performances, particularly during carnival, which the church hierarchy highly condemned. After the Council of Trent, the bans regarding dancing became even stronger. As opposed to bans on performing wheel dances and songs in the Dubrovnik cathedral, elsewhere in Croatia the performance of folk songs as part of liturgies was maintained until the 17th century. Thus Petar Petretić, the perfect of the Zagreb seminary, and later the Zagreb bishop, in 1691 mentioned that the church songs were sung on the melodies of folk songs. He advised that the songs which the plebeians sang when dancing or working needed to be replaced by religious texts, and the melodies could be kept. As examples of such melodies, he mentioned the songs Igra kolo široko and Poszeal szem basulek. He suggests, for example, that the text of the song "Igra kolo široko" should be replaced with that of O gloriosa domina. The longevity of certain traditional verbal songs is confirmed by the facts that those songs were still performed in the 20th century. Such songs, often called poskočnice and characterized as unfit and shameless, the clergy tried to suppress or adapt in accordance with religious teachings and principles. Not infrequently, certain verses or refrains, often of ritual songs of pre-Christian contents, were replaced by Christian invocations during the 17th and 18th centuries. So, for example, the expression tira les, meaning the forest is budding, from the Turopolje St. George's song, was replaced by the expression kirjelejs, kirales, i.e. Kyrie eleison. In other spring songs, the expressions such as ljeljo, ljelja, leluja became alleluia or, on the other hand, the expression lado was replaced by koleda or kolenda from the Latin Calendae in Christmas and New Year's songs. In addition to being a part of celebration of church ceremonies and wedding events, the wheel dances in the 15th century were also an integral part of carnival. Seraph Razzi, in his work La storia di Ragusa from the 16th century, described masked groups who sung songs with Croatian arias – quali venivano cantando certe loro canzonette schiavone di vaghissima aria. Already in the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik bands during carnival entered the cathedral and danced there, especially in the galleries, so that the Dubrovnik government in 1420 issued a ban so that nobody was allowed to sing or dance in the aisles or in the premises above their arches. It was even recorded that in the dance procession even the old mask of Turica on the first day of the celebration of St. Blaise entered the church and dance in it. In the afternoon, in front of the church, the landed gentry danced to the accompaniment of flutes and pipes, and it is interesting that the plebeians were not allowed to dance wheel dance with the landed gentry, but separately. From the 15th century originates the first record of the lyrics of a verbal lyrical folk song in Croatian language, in sclavo, recorded in Dubrovnik. It was the song with the verses in the form of a satirical poem – O Jelo, vita Jelo, Ne hod sama na vodu, Klimoje je na vodu! – during carnival on the 8th February 1462 was performed by a group of young men, with three soloist at the centre of the circle lead the song, and the others followed. That song was probably a part of the programme of spring songs which were sung in the wheel or by the wheel, and then become a part of the procession. Similar example are the folk kolende, which by their contents belong to spring and summer ritual songs, or road songs, which later became a part of the Christmas and the New Year's programme. In the area of Županja, in Slavonija, similar short song entitled Jelo or U Cvjetnicu Jelo was sung in the early 20th century by men who just before the Palm Sunday visited the houses of girls from the village, and the girls, in return, decorated their wells and fences, while the mothers-in-law presented them with eggs.

Wheel dancing was especially widespread among the population of the Adriatic hinterland, which historical sources mention as Morlachs. It was an ethnic group which emerged through joining of the local population of the south-east Europe and the immigrant Romans, and they were nomads who engaged in transhumance farming. After the coming of Slavs, the population adopted to a certain extent the Slavic language, culture and customs, thus creating an interesting cultural syncretism. Their name, meaning "black Vlachs", emerged from Greek Maurovlachoi - Μαυροβλάχοι, Latin Morlachus, referring to their clothes of black cloth. Morlachs, or Morovlachs, can be found in records from the Middle Ages, for example in the Senj charter from the 15th century, or in Dubrovnik documents as Morablachi, Morolacchi or Morlachi. This ethnonym was recorded for the first time in a 1375 letter of a Dubrovnik citizen Andrija Gundulić. Besides, the Dubrovnik chronicles from the Middle Ages we meet Morlachs whom the Dubrovnik authorities settled on Srđ, and they came from the Neretva hinterland – Murlachi da basso sopra Nerente piu Chatunari, and are mentioned and as de ogni Vlasi, that is, the people from the Donji Vlasi, perhaps from the Stolac area. Apart from the mountain of Srđ, Morlachs were also settled on the Brgat area, and also in the Dubrovnik parish between Mlini and Ljuta, in Konavle Površa, Završje, between Dubravka and Vodovađe, and also mentioned were Vlachi Ragiani, perhaps Riđani, on the border between Konavle and Dračevica. Sources mention Morlach or Vlach population which inhabited Croatia before the arrival of Turks, as well as those whom the Turkish invasion pushed into Croatia from the Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart as being cattle breeders, the Morlachs, during Dubrovnik reign from the 13th to 15th century were border guards, trade mediators, especially in oil trade, and guards of Dubrovnik caravans. Their language, Vlach-Romanian, was one of the languages from the Romanian language group. Today we can find it under the name of istrian-romanian. It is rich archaisms and Croatian expressions. If taken into account that in Dubrovnik, up until the 15th century, there was Raguzian, one of autonomous Romanic languages from the group of Dalmatian speeches, it can be assumed that to a smaller extent the Morlachs, stricto sensu, and the inhabitants of Dubrovnik (Raguzians) could communicate. Despite all efforts of the Dubrovnik senate, Raguzian language disappeared by the end of the 15th century. The Morlach population communicated with Dubrovnik and often came down to the city to trade, and probably performed their dances, i.e. wheel dances, there. After the arrival of Venetians on the east coast of the Adriatic, the name of Morlachs started firstly to apply as a general name for all inhabitants of the territory occupied by the Turks, and after for the peasants from the villages surroundings the cities, who were Slavs – Croatians. Therefore that original ethnonym started to denote the Dinaric population and their specific way of life. Is should be mentioned that the name of Ćići, which with the names of Čiribirci, Rumeri, denote the Vlach population of Istria, the Istrian Italians used in a derogatory context denoting Croatian inhabitants of Istria. In his comedy Novela od Stanca from the 16th century, Marin Držić created very precisely a character of a Vlach, Stanac, an inhabitant from the river Piva who danced with fairies in a wheel dance. The Dubrovnik citizens considered the cattle-raising population around Trebinje, Ljubinje and Gacko in the Middle Ages as Vlachs, so in Dubrovnik sources from 1376 we find records of Vlachi et Bosgnani. Given that, in contrast to the Catholic Dubrovnik republic, one part of the Dubrovnik hinterland belonged to the Orthodox denomination, Stanac could have been a member of that religion, although the terms of Vlach and Morovlach did not necessarily have a religious meaning, but originally denoted an ethnic origin, and then a geographic Dinaric origin of the population living outside the cities, farther from the sea.

In various written reports and descriptions from the 18th and 19th centuries in the Dalmatia we find records of a wheel dance with elements of hopping – the so-called skoči-gore – as a recognizable mark of the Morlach culture, of the then already Slavic inhabitants of the Dinaric area. The population living on that inherited from their ancestry an archaic wheel dance unaccompanied with music and song, what is known as a mute or deaf wheel dance. It is believed that the mute wheel dance, as well as ojkavica and ganga, were a heritage of the domestic Illyrian-Romance population. The best-known are mimic wheel dances from the areas of Livno and Travnik, then mute wheel dances of Vrlika and Glamoč, as well as similar wheel dances in the area of Knin and Promina. Eventually such wheel dances in particular areas developed into wheel dances accompanied with music, most often with mješnica, or the accompanying songs, a elsewhere the remained preserved in their archaic form. The element of the high hopping with both legs can also be found in continental Croatia, Sava River basin, Bilogora, Zagorje and Slavonija, and it is assumed that this element in the dances of the mentioned regions came from the medieval branla, i.e. the hault barroisa dance from the 15th century. Alberto Fortins recounted the Morlach dances in his Travels through Dalmatia (orig. Putovanje po Dalmaciji) from 1774, stating that they danced a wheel dance to the accompaniment of a song and mješnica, after which the dance crossed over to the so-called skozzi-gori. Balthasar Hacquet in his work Representation and description of the south-west and eastern Slovenes, Illyrians and Slavs (orig. Slika i opis jugozapadnih i istočnih Slovenaca, Ilira i Slavena) from 1801 also described a wheel dance in pairs performed with song and mješnicakosslo (kozlo) or lijericaguszle or a type of oboe – šalmaj, and the dancing couples jumped high – skossigori. Very similar description of the dance comes from Joseph Lavallée in his 1802 work Picturesque and historical travels through Istria and Dalmatia (orig. Slikovito i povijesno putovanje po Istri i Dalmaciji). Jean Baptist Joseph Breton, in his book Illyria and Dalmatia: places, customs and costumes of Illyrians, Dalmatians and their neighbours (orig. Ilirija i Dalmacija: mjesta, običaji i nošnje Ilira, Dalmatinaca i njihovih susjeda) from 1816, in writing about wedding customs in Dalmatians, stated that they were similar to those of the uskoks and Morlachs, while their dances and music were similar to those of the inhabitants of Lika. Such information contains a reference to a six-part wheel dancing described by Šime Ljubić in 1846 in his book Customs of Morlachs in Dalmatia (orig. Običaji kod Morlakah u Dalmaciji). In his opinion, the wheel dance, along with the singing of folk songs and mješnica, or twin reed flutes, the dance which the Morlachs performed was inherited from the Illyrians, and he considered Morlachs as Slavs. He noted the verses recorded by Petar Nisiteo, and which were sung in the wheel: Skoči kolo, da skočimo, da se Bogu pomolimo! Skoči kolo, da skočimo, da se k domu potožimo! Juraj Dulčić provided information about a wheel dance from the island of Vis, called skočigori, as well as in Morlachs, and was danced with accompaniment of mješnica or lijerica. The wheel dance accompanied by jumps was also mentioned by Ivan Gundulić in the 17th century, who wrote in his Osman about a wheel accompanied by twin reed flute, pan flute and song, and in Dubravka he wrote: Igraj kolo, skočmo bolje, svak se kaži dobrevolje. Wheel dancing is also mentioned by Ignjat Đurđević in the 18th century. Pavao Pelizzer from Rovinj in the 17th century on the island of Krapanj saw a custom of electing the king and a wheel dance, and Giuseppe Pignata in a work printed in 1725, describing a custom of electing the king on the island of Molat, wrote about a wheel dance in which people jumped in the air while making funny grimaces, various poses, jumping on stiffened legs high up, in a large circle, like croppers. In Šibenik, in the period from 1611 to 1617, an Old Croatian wheel dance was performed. Based on archive material from the 18th from the island of Vis, Grga Novak wrote about a wheel dance performed in the circle by holding hands, and by making half a step forward and half a step backward. This wheel dance was accompanied by song, and in the middle there was a bottle full of fine wine.

The oldest form of the wheel dance was a six-part wheel dance. According to dr. Ivan Ivančan, the six-part wheel dancing came to Europe from the Middle East. It was known to Arabs as dapke, meaning "stomping". For Slavs, such walked wheels were accompanied by song, so we know them as sung wheel dances. In a broader European context, especially archaic and medieval sung wheel dances, such as an old wheel dance from the Faroe Islands off the coast of Scotland, performed accompanied with ballads. At the end of the Middle Ages in the Europe, there came to a separation of pairs of the old wheel dance to a pair-element of hopping from leg to leg. Lifting a dance partner (a woman) in the air is a trace of the West European volta, which started to expand from the 15th century on. The dance element of hopping, the so-called skoči gore, can be found in reports from the 18th century in these areas. However, we can assume that in our wheel-dances this element appeared in baroque, or at the end of the 17th century, so that the beginning of the 18th century when the original wheel dance of the Dubrovnik area, which was danced with the accompaniment of poskočnica and mješnica, developed in paired wheel dance poskočnica, which we know from the reports from the mid-19th century. The disintegration of the comprehensive structure of the wheel dance to paired figures certainly affected the abandoning of singing in the wheel dance, and it became an introductory element of the design, i.e. the accompanying part performed on the side. The development of poskočica was inevitable impacted by urban culture of dance coming from Dubrovnik, where the dancing element of performance dominated the singing element, as well as the occurrence of wheel-leaders, i.e. those who lead the dance and called out instructions. Therefore, Johann Christian Von Engle, in his work The History of the Dubrovnik Republic (orig. Povijest Dubrovačke Republike) from 1807 noted that on the Croatian coastal areas, all movement instructions in the wheel dance were given in Italian, as elsewhere in Europe was the case with the quadrille. At the same time, there came to the acceleration of the old six-part wheel dance, so that some wheel dances on the Adriatic gained a three-part form. Such was the case with the parts of poskočica, which was another reason for abandoning singing in the poskočica wheel dance. The occurrence of lijerica, which expanded from the 18th century and by its end started to conquer the territory and little by little pushing out mješnica as a musical accompaniment to the wheel dance, also contributed to the changes of pace.

Wheel dance, horo or oro, a circular form of dance in which dancers follow each other along an imagined circle. The first name speaks about its form of a wheel – circulus, and the other two names originate from the Greek horos, meaning a group of people. Wheel dancing is a widespread form of dancing among southern Slavs. There are ritual wheel dances which tightly follow the rules and the specified structure, as well as the fun ones, of a less formal character. Wheel dances are roughly divided to closed and open ones, as well as mute wheel dances, sung wheel dances and wheel dances accompanied with music. Among ritual wheel dances, especially prominent were fertility wheel dances and posthumous wheel dances. Wheel dances around ritual fires in spring and summer were intended for the protection from parasites, spells and diseases. It can be said that the wheel dance is an ancient social instrument for communication of the community with of the otherworldly, so in that sense it was sacred to them. Besides, wheel dance was a centre of social life of a community, a place of meetings, youthful romances, social criticism and ridicule, as well as a place for releasing social tensions.

Movement of a wheel dance usually follows the trajectory of sun on the sky (clockwise), naoposum or naoposle, i.e. the way in which the sun and the moon move, that is, in the proper order – a ritual. Posthumous wheel dances move in the opposite direction, or the dancers turn their backs to the middle of the circle. Such wheel dances carry the names of awry wheel or reverse wheel. By reversing direction, as well as by changing the usual order, the dancers aim to confuse the dead souls and thus protect themselves from their impact in the liminal context of the performance. On numerous standing tomb-stones in the areas of Konavle, from Brotnice, Pridvorje, Gabrile, Mihanići, Popovići, there are see representations of wheel dances - all-male, all-female and mixed. Male and females wheel dances somewhere show dancers holding each other's hands in the air, whereas other show female wheel dances with hands resting on shoulders. According to some authors, such depictions refer to posthumous wheel dances. In Cavtat, in front of the Church of St. George, there is a stone board illustrating a pastoral dance with rods, as well as wolves and a conflict of a wolf and a horse. That illustration would correspond to pastoral tanci, which were mentioned by Dubrovnik poets in the 15th century, and would go in support of the existence of chain dances with rods in this area, which could have had the ritual role of cattle protection. Ritual fertility wheel dances have the function of stimulating general fertility of people, animals and plants. Symbolic movements, primarily shaking of body, as well as stomping of feet on the ground or hopping, dancers would appeal to the spirit of vegetation. A wheel dance performed only by old men or women also had its meaning, and was mostly performed the last, in the time of carnival.