Naples:life,death &
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© Jeff Matthews      entry Dec 2012


The Tarantella


The Tarantella is the most iconic popular dance of southern Italy. There are many different variations; thus, we hear of the Neapolitan, the Sorrentine, the Calabrian, the Sicilian tarantella, etc. etc. The term, itself, may refer to the dance or just to the music; there are, in fact, a number of instrumental tarantellas in the classical music repertoire, compositions by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Mendelsohn, Stravinsky, and others. Additionally, there are such things as the ballet, Tarantella, by George Balanchine, set to Louis Moreau Gottschalk's 1859 Grande Tarantelle, Op. 67, for piano . Musically, the tarantella is commonly in a very fast version of the ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three rhythm usually called 6/8 time in music. Probably the best-known Neapolitan song written in that rhythm is Funiculì-Funiculà, composed in 1880 by Giuseppe Turco (words) and Luigi Denza (music). There are countless applications of the rapid tarantella rhythm in popular music, including the Fairy Godmother's song "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" from Disney's 1950 film, Cinderella. Also, some poetry has the same ONE-two-three rhythm to it (called "dactylic meter"). Here—try reciting the opening of Longfellow's Evangeline over and over, faster than you think is humanly possibly: "THIS is the FORest priMEval. The MURmuring PINES and the HEMlocks..." Now, grab a tambourine and you're in business.

Musical instruments that accompany the tarantella dance are commonly the mandolin, guitar, accordion, and tambourine, augmented by other typical local instruments. (The tambourine is so integral to the music that in Naples one kind of tarantella is also called the "tammurriata" from the dialect word for a large tambourine.) The dance, itself, may be roughly as shown in the above illustration; that is, couples in which one member dances for the other. One member may be kneeling. The dance partners can be a man and a woman or a couple composed of two women (Goethe described a version in his Italian Journey involving three women partners dancing the tarantella.) The steps are nimble and the dancing involves a lot of whirling, flirtatious glances, and close approaches. With multiple couples, the tarantella is a circle dance alternating from clockwise to counter-clockwise and back as the music progresses, picking up speed as it goes. As with much southern Italian music, there are frequent alternations of major and minor keys. The lyrics are recited by a central singer/speaker. The name "tarantella" comes from the southern town of Taranto, on the inside of the "heel" of Italy on the Ionian sea. The etymology is not mysterious, but there is at least one mystery; that is, whether or not the dance is covered by the term "dance mania" as some sources seem to think.

 
The phrase "dance mania" has no doubt been used by parents throughout the ages to refer to whatever choreographic frenzy their teen-aged children are engaged in at any given moment. Rightfully, however, "dance mania" (also "choreomania") refers to a series of strange episodes between the 1300s and 1600s that saw many hundreds (and even thousands) of persons in Europe suddenly get up and engage in mass dancing until they dropped from exhaustion. It is still not clear whether such activity was a social phenomenon—some sort of mass hysteria—or whether there was a physical cause, perhaps food poisoning. Regardless of the cause, a number of terms such as St. Vitus Dance and the Tarantella are often jumbled together in discussions of "dance mania" since they seem to be related phenomena.

There are, for example, a number of places in Italy, including the town of Forio on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, that have San Vito (St. Vitus) as their patron saint and where ritual dancing takes place on June 15, the feast day of the saint. There are also at least a half-dozen towns in Italy named San Vito, including one near Benevento and one in Calabria. There are also a few towns named Sankt Veit in German-speaking Europe. Vitus was, indeed, an historical saint from Sicily, martyred during the persecution of Christians around the year 300. For unknown reasons, the type of frenetic dancing popularly called St. Vitus Dance arose in Germany in the 1500s. Scientifically, such behavior was later renamed Sydenham's chorea after Thomas Sydenham (1624 – 1689) an English physician known as 'The English Hippocrates’. The condition is described in the literature as one of a group of abnormal involuntary movement disorders. It is a major sign of acute rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disease caused by a streptococcal infection. Symptoms include twitching, loss of fine motor control and loss of emotional control with bouts of inappropriate crying or laughing. St. Vitus Dance looks superficially related to St. Anthony's Fire, a disease caused by ergotism, from the eating of infected grain, the symptoms of which included convulsions, erratic movements and even hallucinations (LSD is a derivative of ergot). (See the above link for an item on the church/monastery of Sant' Antonio Abate in Naples founded in the Middle Ages to treat the afflicted.) There is, however, to my knowledge, no dance associated with Sant' Antonio in imitation of movements caused by the condition.

The Tarantella dance has given us the name "tarantism," described as an hysterical malady, marked by an extreme impulse to dance. From the 15th to 17th century there was an epidemic of such dancing in the Puglia (Apulia) region of Italy where the city of Taranto is located. The dancing is connected to the venomous bite or sting of the tarantula. The little beastie in question is the local wolf spider (Lycosa tarantula), at least once upon a time found throughout the area. The question is whether the bite caused you to start displaying dance-like symptoms the way diseased grain causes ergotism and a streptococcal infection causes "St. Vitus Dance" or whether you and your also-bitten friends voluntarily started to dance because that made you sweat and rid your system of the venom. We may never know because as it turns out, the bite of this particular spider of the Lycosidae family is not very venomous (unlike the more poisonous North American tarantula of the Theraphosidae family). Thus, even if you never danced, you would have survived, but at least the devotees of Tarantella dancing can claim a high cure rate! (Spoil-sports like to point out, however, that there is, or was, the very poisonous Mediterranean black-widow spider, Latrodectus tredecimguttatus, in the area, which fact might be at the root of a justifiable concern of dying from spider venom.) The town of Taranto does not take its name from the spider; it's the other way round. The Romans called the place Tarantum, a variation of Taras, the name given to the site by the first Greek settlers as Magna Grecia spread throughout the Mediterranean in around 600 BC. In Greek mythology, Taras was the son of Poseidon, the sea-god.

A few other considerations are perhaps examples of over-analysis, but fun nonetheless. Some say that the whole dancing frenzy was simply an excuse to get around religious proscriptions against dancing. Also, maybe the frequent occurrence of female couples in the dance had to do with female sexual desires in areas of Europe at a time when sexual freedom was discouraged; in other words, repressed women could let off steam. Also, in literature one well-known example of the tarantella as a metaphor of liberation from patriarchal and matrimonial repression occurs in Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House (Et dukkehjem in the original Norwegian; also translated as A Doll House), first performed in 1879. Nora Helmer is expected to act like a good-natured bird-brain first by her father and then her husband. She escapes to be her own person by stalking out of the "poison" of her marriage after first dancing a tarantella (tambourine and all!). In the play, the reference to the "tarantella" is repeated and obvious; indeed, Nora says that she is going to a party as a Neapolitan fisher-girl, and dance the Tarantella that she learned at Capri. The play, which features her slamming the door as she leaves at the end of the last act, so scandalized bourgeois theater-goers that some theaters refused to play it unless Ibsen wrote an alternate, less drastic ending. He did and said that he hated it. (That version was eventually abandoned and the original is now played everywhere.) Ibsen said that he did not intentionally mean the play to be about women's rights but about human rights, in general. In spite of that, the play is now part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, which says
A Doll's House is an exceptional achievement. In spite of Nora's uncertain future prospects—facing the problems a divorced woman without means would face in nineteenth century society—she has served and serves as a symbol throughout the world, for women fighting for liberation and equality.

Finally, in spite of the British military's mispronunciation of something they call "Tuh-RAEN-to Night" to mark the first successful carrier-based air-raid on an enemy port, Taranto, on November 11, 1940, the correct Italian pronunciation of Taranto has the accent on the first syllable, TA-ran-to. It is not to be confused with the Canadian town of To-RON-to. I have friends from there, and they assure me that there is no native Canadian dance called the Torontella.

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