MOREŠKA - sword dance sacred to the inhabitants of Korčula

Moreska is pronounced 'Moreska'. It means 'Moorish'. The word is derived from the Spanish adjective 'Morisco' or the Italian 'Moresco'. It is a matter of conjecture whether the dance came to the Adriatic directly from Spain through roving Spanish sailors, or from Sicily or Italy when Dalmatia formed part of the Venetian Republic whether it was originally a Moorish dance or a Spanish one, inspired by the struggle of Spanish Christians against the Moors is also debatable though the latter seems the most likely. We do know for certain that it is one of the oldest traditional European dances still performed, and that records exist of it being danced in Lerida in 1156 in a form portraying a Christian and National victory over the Moors and their expulsion from Aragon.

From the 12th century and particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, the dance spread to many Mediterranean countries: to Italy, Corsica, Sicily, Malta, France and, through Spanish trade, to Flanders, Germany and even to England. It was subject to frequent local variations, in regard to plot, protagonists and eventually also to form. In Corsica it was danced by eighty swordsmen on each side, armed with two swords apiece, who did battle for the town of Mariana to the music of a solo violin; in Elba the engagement was between Christians and Turks, in other places between Arabs and Turks; sometimes the damsel in distress was a white maiden of royal blood, sometimes a Turkish or Moorish one of equal innocence and beauty. In Ferrara a dragon was introduced who tried to devour the damsel and there were many later versions which degenerated from the original war-dance (intrinsically a useful sword practice and 'keep-fit' class for the warriors of small island or coastal garrisons for whom good swordsmanship and alertness meant their survival) into a form of folk drama, and eventually into the dance interludes of pastoral plays and Italian opera. In Germany the Moreska, though called Moriskentanze, became a mere collection of local folk dances and in England the Morris (l.e. Moorish) dancers threw away their swords and substituted long wooden sticks which they fought with and over which they hopped. In most of the Mediterranean the Moreska survived until the end of the 18th century, and in Italy and Dalmatia till the close of the 19th.

Today, Korcula is the only island where it is still danced with real swords in its original War-Dance form and where it has enjoyed a proud and almost unbroken tradition for over four centuries, though the text, music and pattern of the dance have been slightly altered and shortened (the contest used to last for two hours!) over the years.

What is Moreška anyway?

The introduction to the dance is a short drama in blank verse which sets the scene -- four characters recite the verses: the enemy or the Black King, his father, Otmanovic, (a kind of Balkan mediator), the Hero or the White King, and the Bula or Moslem maiden, who is a peace-maker as well as a heroine (and a possible convert to Christianity?).


The Moreska arrived in Korcula in the 16th century, at the same time as it did in Dubrovnik, most probably from Sicily or Southern Italy, via Venice. An indication of this is that two of the dance "figures" have Italian names: the "Rujer" and the "Rujer di fori via". "Ruggero" was the name of a Sicilian war-dance, a version of the Moreska, in which the Saracens are shown fighting against the Norman Prince Ruggiero d'Altavilla -- a powerful family who ruled over Sicily and Southern Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries, which suggests a possible link. There are, however, no written records of the Korculan dance until the beginning of the 18th century. Latterly and up to the first World War the Moreska was "fought" only every few years -- protagonists were often wounded and replaced by 'seconds' during the dance -- between 1918 and 1939 it was performed every year under the aegis of the Gymnastic Society of Korcula. Nowadays it is an exclusive Society (and 'club') of its own and the Moreska is performed much more frequently for the benefit of the many tourists who visit the Island. Every family in Korcula is proud to have one of its members dance in the Moreska, especially one of the key roles, which demand considerable talent and stamina. When the Black or the White Kings "retire" they are allowed to keep their crowns and these become valued family possessions.

During the second World war costumes, swords, even musical scores and instruments had all been lost in the bombing and fighting and for the first time in its history only very young lads of between twelve and seventeen were available to dance the Moreska, and they had to be taught from scratch.

It was the undefeatable and indefatigable spirit of Ivo Lozica, the town barber, and Bozo Jerirevic, a school-teacher, with the help of a local policeman, Zdravko Stanic, and Josip Svoboda the conductor of the town orchestra, that somehow got the Moreska dancing again and in a very short time the poor, thin undernourished youths were growing into splendid young men and were taking the Moreska to youth conferences and festivals at home and abroad.