Dance, Cultural Revitalization, and Continuity in Korčula, Croatia

Korčula Town, Croatia. Photo by Stephanie Smith
Korčula Town, Croatia. Photo by Stephanie Smith

In July, I spent eleven exhilarating days with colleagues from many countries in the International Council for Traditional Music’s Study Group on Ethnochoreology. “Ethnochoreology” is a name for researchers of dance ethnology, of ethnic dance or dance anthropology, and we hold a symposium every two years with papers and film presentations. This year we had the wonderful opportunity to gather on the island of Korčula in Croatia, which is rich in sword dance traditions. There were ninety presentations focusing on the themes of “Dance and Narrative” and “Dance as Intangible and Tangible Cultural Heritage.”

During the day, we had research paper sessions that generated lively discussion, debate, learning, and theorizing. On several evenings, we took field trips to experience the various sword dances of the island, including a sword dance festival. The sword dance Korčula is probably best known for, moreška, is performed for visitors to the walled Korčula Town at least twice a week in the summer.

The combat sword dance features a mock battle between the Black King and his army (the Moors), and a White King and his army (the Turks). They fight over the bula, the favorite of the White King. She has been abducted by Moro, the son of the Black King, who also loves her. The bula is dressed as a Turkish lady, with a veil over her head, and she is in chains. The performance begins with an impassioned dialogue between Moro and the bula, and then the battle between the two armies commences. Each army member has two swords, which is a distinctive feature of the dance.

Demonstration of moreška in Korčula Town. Photo by Stephanie Smith
Demonstration of moreška in Korčula Town. Photo by Stephanie Smith

Over time, the narrative and meanings of this sword dance have evolved. Though it may have originally represented a battle between the Moors and the Christians, in the past three or more centuries it has represented a battle between the Moors and the Turks, probably due to events in Croatia’s history (Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country). In the dance, sparks fly as sword meets sword, the White King is victorious, and the bula is released.

Two teams of dancers perform the moreška in Korčula Town, each connected to a society dedicated to the preservation and performance of the dance: the Moreška Culture and Art Society, founded in 1944, and the St. Cecilia Croatian Music Society, founded in 1883. The music for the moreška is played by a brass band, which replaced the traditional tambrlin drum and violins in the twentieth century.

The kumpanjija chain sword dances are done in distinctive ways in six Korčula villages. The music is generally a misnjica (bagpipe) and a tambrlin or tamburlo (drum). The performance begins and ends dramatically with flag waving, followed by a series of figures such as open chain, snail, hey, door, and rose that have connections to chain dances from other countries. “Kumpanjija” refers not only to the dance but the society of men performing it.

On the second evening of the symposium, we attended the Sword Dance Festival, revitalized after a ten-year hiatus. We saw kumpanjija dances from Čara, Pupnat, Smokvica, and Vela Luka villages, plus a guest group from Spain, the Lastovo Island group (Pokladarsko društvo Lastovo), and the Moreška Culture and Art Society.

The Vela Luca Kumpanjija group lift their bagpiper on a bed of swords at the 2014 Sword Dance Festival. Photo by Stephanie Smith
The Vela Luca Kumpanjija group lift their bagpiper on a bed of swords at the 2014 Sword Dance Festival. Photo by Stephanie Smith

The Vela Luka group, who revived their dance in the 2000s, included a figure of forming a platform with their swords, lifting the bagpiper who gave a short recitation to the audience. Elsie Dunin, UCLA dance ethnology professor emerita and our organizer extraordinaire, said this figure was added by a school teacher leader who saw sword dance groups from Bavaria and Belgium include it in the Korčula Sword Dance Festivals in the late-1990s. No other Korčula groups (in the five oldest villages) include this lifting figure. See it here along with the other groups in a film by Ivan Grbin.

In order to see kumpanjija in its proper context, we went to Smokvica, Pupnat, and Blato to see performances. We were welcomed by each community with local delicacies such as dried figs, sugared almonds, and liqueurs. In Pupnat, we proceeded through the small village following the dancers to the town hall, the church, and finally to a square where the dance was performed. We stayed for an evening meal in the village hall, and as it was the evening of the final game of the World Cup, some villagers and ethnochoreologists were glued to the TV in the adjoining bar, making the evening a real mixture of traditional and contemporary culture.

Having seen these examples of sword dance on Korčula over a short period of time, both in the villages and at the festival, I was eager to know more behind the history, meaning, and function of the dances. (My connection to sword dance has consisted of many years of observing English forms: long sword and rapper sword dances, both in the United Kingdom and United States.) Many published works about these Korčulan dances highlight the importance of intangible cultural heritage, the conflict between dancing for the community and dancing for the tourists, the controversy of including past customs—such as beheading an ox in the revived Pupnat kumpanjija—that are not accepted by everyone today, and the challenges of revitalizing a dance when there is a break in continuity.

Kumpanjija and moreška were performed on carnival days and patron saints’ days. Prior to the Communist era in Yugoslavia, they were performed in honor of special visitors to the island, and during the socialist era for non-religious holidays. There were periods during the First and Second World Wars and later in the twentieth century when these dances were not performed, and knowledge was lost. Revitalizing the dances required gathering existing knowledge in the community; in the case of Pupnat, outside experts were brought in to help with the reconstruction and revival of the dance. An increase in tourism has required more frequent performances, as well as a careful selection of what figures are performed, which are controversial topics in the communities.

A group from Lastovo Island performs a sword dance at the Sword Dance Festival in Korčula. Here they are in "contra formation." Photo by Stephanie Smith
A group from Lastovo Island performs a sword dance at the Sword Dance Festival in Korčula. Here they are in “contra formation.” Photo by Stephanie Smith

One of the symposium participants from Australia told us there is a diaspora group dancing Blato-style kumpanjija in Sydney. In her study of Korčula island sword dances in the diaspora, Elsie Dunin found that of the three areas people from Korčula emigrated to in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—California, Chile, and Australia—the only location that has maintained sword dance is Australia, because of the significant numbers of people from Blato, their dedication to preserving the dance in their new home, and their retaining connection to the homeland through travel and the Internet.

The trip to Korčula was an unforgettable dance immersion experience. Allegra Fuller Snyder, professor emerita in dance ethnology at UCLA, provided the symposium’s closing remarks, stressing the importance of dance and our work with dance to the world. In the evening, after our farewell dinner, study group members performed an elaborate spoof “sword dance” using pens instead of swords.

Stephanie Smith is the associate archivist for the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. She congratulates Elsie Dunin and director Tvrtko Zebec, Iva Niemčić, and others at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb for a highly successful symposium.