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Dancing the Tarantella

Sadly the movers are coming for my computer soon, but before they do, here is one last post for today. I was playing around on the electronic version of The International Encyclopedia of Dance and found this entry about the Tarantella dance. Keep reading to find out how dance and spiders are connected.

Tarantella. Although the tarantella is firmly entrenched in the Western mind as an expression of the gaiety and vivacity of southern Italy, there is no set structure for the dance. The figures of the tarantella, which are made up of light hopping steps executed in 3/8 or 6/8 time, often in accelerating tempo, may be executed in any order the dancers please. In addition, there are regional differences in the number, sex, and demeanor of the dancers and in the musical instruments used to accompany the dance.

The tarantella has roots in ancient history; it is said to derive its name from the city of Tarentum dance.jpg(modern-day Taranto), formerly a Greek settlement on the southern coast of Italy. Historians have identified representations of the dance in ancient Greek vase paintings and on the wall paintings at Pompeii. Elba Farabegoli Gurzau (1981) notes, however, that the name tarantella came into use only within the last four or five centuries, and that the dance was formerly known as the lucia, sfessania, or villanella, among other names. She further observes that it became fused with the fandango and acquired the use of castanets when Spain dominated southern Italy in the late fifteenth century.

According to a widespread legend, the dance acquired its name because it was used as a cure for the poisonous bite of the tarantula spider. Gurzau reports that this etymological point was debated at the Venice Congress and Folk Festival in 1949, and the participants concluded that the legend was based on the similarity of the two words rather than actuality. In apparent contradiction to this conclusion is the fact that the tarantella is performed as a kind of exorcism by the practitioners of Tarantism, an Italian possession cult comparable to the zār cult of Ethiopia or Vodun in Haiti. Ernesto de Martino, whose La terra del rimorso (1961) is considered the principal monograph on Tarantism, has discovered, however, that the cult’s association with the bite of the tarantula is more symbolic than real because its members, the majority of whom are women, tend to be concentrated in particular families, and their attacks usually occur annually around the time of the feast of Saint Paul.

W. G. Raffé’s dictionary (1964), which contains three separate entries for the tarantella, identifies the dance with the treguenda, or danza alla strega, a witches’ ritual in which an invisible web was woven to entrap unwary travelers, and the danza dell’arco, a mimed love story performed by pilgrims to Mount Virgine near Naples. The latter, he notes, is “not merely a technically executed folk-dance.”

Gurzau (1981) records several regional variations of the tarantella as well as some modern-day arrangements created by folk dance groups. In Apulia (region on the south-eastern coast of Italy, on the Adriatic Sea and Gulf of Taranto), the tarantella is usually danced by a man and a woman, with other dancers in a circle around them; when either partner tires, he or she is replaced from the circle. The women preserve a shy demeanor as they dance, keeping their heads bent and their eyes on the ground. Musical accompaniment is provided by the accordion, castanets, and tambourines. In Sicily, where the tarantella is often performed during wedding festivities, rhythmic clapping accompanies the dance instead of castanets or tambourines. The women of Campania (the region that includes Naples and Sorrento) dance with their heads up and a sense of self-pride. Two women may dance together as a third plays the tambourine; they may also make patterns with a long ribbon or sash. Bagpipes, tambourines, castanets, clapping, and finger-snapping accompany the dance.

Stylized tarantellas have been used to add a touch of local color to the ballet stage. An early example is the tarantella created for Fanny Elssler in Jean Coralli’s ballet La Tarentule (1836), the plot of which centers around real and feigned bites of the tarantula. In making this dance, Coralli cannily exploited Elssler’s previous success in character dances such as the cachucha. Inspired by his visit to Italy in 1841, August Bournonville’s Napoli (1842) contained a tarantella that, as the master proudly notes, “was unanimously declared to be the finest composition of its kind” (1979). A comparison of his choreography with Gurzau’s descriptions suggests that he may have conflated different regional variations of the dance.

Dolls dressed in Italian peasant costume performed a tarantella in Léonide Massine’s La Boutique Fantasque (1919). George Balanchine‘s lively Tarantella (1964) was created as a display piece for two virtuosic dancers, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella. The choreographer modestly denied any claim of authenticity, stating, “[It] is ‘Neapolitan’ if you like and ‘demi-caractère.’ The costumes are inspired by Italy, anyhow, and there are tambourines” (1977).

Recent Comments

  1. galey

    ey!!!!!!!!!!! can you post the dance of tarantella?? i dont know.. pls…

  2. carrie

    Are there words that are sung with the Tarantella?

  3. Robby

    what is the costume??

  4. bea .. .

    like their comments. . . where is the costumes and please post a song that suit for tarantella dance . . . .

  5. Maria Carmela Monteleone

    I am from Calabria in South of Italy and this summer I hope to take a course in Tarantella, look for a stage in Cataforio (international stage on local folk) for those interested.
    I study grrek and roman history and I am researching the hypothesis that tarantella comes from Baccanti dances in honour of Dionysus and also Cerere or Rhea greek and pyrgian war dances, with tamburines and cymbales. The christians hated and tried to kill everything pagan, therefore the attached the most horrible names to pagan rituals, therefore the name Tarantella, “dance of people possessed by poison”!
    I only now that it is so vital and I love it, I hope to lean soon

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