Southern Italy serves as the birthplace for the folk dance known as the “Tarantella” originating as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries yet more prevalent during the Middle Ages/Renaissance. Primarily this dance form started off as a solo dance to cure disease yet transitioned into a dance of courtship years later. A cultural experience of the Tarantella comes from the occurrence of a spider bite from the well known Tarantula. Usually women were affected by the dangerous spider, possibly because of their work in the fields and also belonged to the lower class of Italy in most cases. It is believed that once bitten, the venom caused one to fall into a trance, only curable through a frenzy of dance and music. The non-stop, fast paced dancing would help the victim sweat out the poison. It is unclear how it transitioned into a courtship dance however most likely occurred during the later Middle Ages. It can be explained through the myth that a group of young Italians (males and females) were outside of the church St.Magnus when they were struck by the Tarantula and disturbed the priest while dancing their way to a cure. In addition it came to be that it was very unlucky to dance the Tarantella alone for reasons unknown.
Accompanying this dance form are instruments such as the mandolin, guitar, tambourine and the accordion. Depending on the location some traditional instruments are used as well such as the triccabballacco or the puti-pu (resembling a drum). It is upbeat and lively usually in about 6/8 time but can also depend on the region. Traditional costuming includes colorful knee length skirts paired with a white blouse with loose sleeves under a black yest for the women. Black or colorful knee length pants paired with long white socks for the men are customary, along with a white shirt and colorful vests.
The original solo form does not have much documentation as to certain dance techniques or steps used, however they were known to transition from standing to falling to the ground multiple times. The courtship form is very different and has evolved into more of a dance of pursuit between a man and woman through a variety of steps. It varies between crossing the feet over the other as well as low kicks while transferring the weight and traveling backwards in a clockwise/counterclockwise position. The woman may have the tambourine first hitting it on her shoulder and hips while performing the basic tarantella step with her counterpart in a do-si-do fashion. The man may then take it kneeling while playing the tambourine as the women does a mixture of basic steps in front of him. Then the following 16 counts of music the women performs eight steps counterclockwise as his tambourine shakes. From there two couples can face each other reaching up towards the center completing about eight tarantella steps clockwise and hitting the tambourine on the last step and likewise in the opposite direction. It has been said the the Tarantella values the woman over the man and her ability to resist or ignore the admiration of the opposite gender. This could be seen maybe in the way the man kneels at the woman while she dances above and around him. In my opinion, there could be a connection between her ability to overcome the tarantula venom and strength to resist the pursuit of males through dance.
Today, various versions of the Tarantella are performed a traditional Italian weddings and celebrations, and nuances have become a part of classical ballet repertoire with the use of the tambourine.
By: Lauren Saint-Louis