Most people like dancing, but rare would dare hit the dance floor waving sharp swords around their head. However, for the people of Korcula, blades are an important part of their traditional Moreska dance. Yes, you read that right. The island known for its beautiful marina and fantastic wine is also home of a unique warrior dance.
Now, a short history lesson- in medieval times the map of Europe was subject to frequent changes due to Moorish invasions. Since swords and sabers were a part of everyday life, they quickly influenced arts and culture. One of the products is this blade-featured manifestation, a practice of dancing with real weapons, where performers would energetically clash their swords in the rhythm of the choreographies or wave them in strong, yet disciplined moves. As far as history remembers, the European cradle of this practice is Spain.
Things didn’t stay local, however. Surrounding nations quickly took over the Spanish idea and developed their own dances and techniques. Sword-dancing began spreading across the continent as early as the 12th century. What is interesting is that each of these folkdances had a background story, so many of them were performed to commemorate military victories or depict local legends.
Croats living in the romantic town of Trogir knew of the practice as early as 1273, but it didn’t get much attention until the 15th century. At that time, the city-state of Dubrovnik had close ties with Spain, and had probably re-learned the practice from sailors and naval merchants. However, it was Korcula (known to be the birthplace of famous explorer Marco Polo) that really embraced sword-dancing, and developed its own form of the dance, called the “Moreska.” Today, it is the only island that has held on to the practice of using real weapons in the dance, because of which performers must be extremely careful not to hurt each other or themselves.
“Moreska” literally means “Moorish”, since it was believed the dance originated from the Moors (experts even today allow this as a possibility). The dancers usually wore colorful, lavish costumes of red and black, although the narrative behind the dance tells the story of a war between the White and Black King.
The tale begins when Moro (the Black King) kidnaps a Moslem maiden, Bula, in the hope she will respond to his romantic aspirations. However, the young beauty is in love with Osman (The White King) who shortly after comes with his troops to free the beloved woman. After a series of threats and insults, a ferocious battle takes place in which even the Black King’s father engages in the sword-dancing fight. In the end the black army is defeated. Osman frees his beloved fiancée and they kiss.
Moreska was very important to the people of Korcula. To be a part of it was a matter of honor, and things related to it (such as weapons or costumes) were passed to sons by fathers. The roles of kings were especially valued, and dancers performing in their roles were allowed to keep the costume’s crowns after retirement. To have one of these at home meant to belong to a powerful and respected family. The weapons were also much appreciated, and during some performances with experienced dancers, the clash of blades was so strong that sparks would fly.
However, a huge tragedy struck this tradition, when the massive destruction of World War II obliterated Korcula. All costumes, musical scores, instruments and swords were destroyed in frequent bombings, and young people left the island, joining the ranks of military. But even this sad era did not end the Moreska. Seeing how disastrous it would be for Croatia to lose such a valuable cultural treasure, a local barber teamed up with a teacher, a policeman and an orchestra conductor to train twelve-year old boys how to dance the Moreska. It is only thanks to these men of honor (and boys who were not afraid of numerous cuts during their education), that we still have sword-dancing of Korcula.
The White King always wins the heart of his girl with a sword. Luckily, modern ladies are easier to please as they value a nice romantic dinner more than a choreographed skirmish.
Photo: Zvonimir Barisin / CROPIX