The Tarantella Dance!

The tarantella has dubious beginnings, a long history and is credited for naming an Italian wolf spider- the Tarantula. Many Italians have heard of this dance but few actively do it save for cultural events and weddings in the South of Italy.

The Tarantella has found a resurgence through Italian Americans who are reaching back to their roots and hoping to bring something tangible to share with their family and Americans who are curious about this exotic dance.

The challenge of describing a dance with text in this article is made even more difficult for this little documented dance that was never considered seriously beyond a peasant dance until Madamme Michau intorduced it to the upper classes in London’s ball rooms in 1844.

Origins

There are many theories on how the Tarantella began, and unless an in-depth study is made into the origins of this dance we cannot say with accuracy which is correct, but here are two of the most popular.

The Bite of A Spider – The dance was used apparently to cure the bite of the spider. The bite of the spider was presumed to make one hallucinate. The town’s folk will play music while the afflicted person would dance nonstop, to ward off the spider’s venom. FACT: While painful, a tarantula bite is not fatal. However, a bite from a black widow spider, whose venom is ten times more lethal than that of the rattlesnake, can cause acute pain which seems to be alleviated by physical exercise — thus the tarantella and an identity crisis for the spiders involved.

Oppression of Women -.Another origin leans on a legend of a woman who was depressed and frustrated from the subordinate lifestyle would fall into a trance that could only be cured by music and dance. This normally lasted three days and during that time the tarantata would be the center of attention, which in turn would cure them of their frustrations and depressions.

Historical Descriptions

Johann W. von Goethe (1749-1832) – a German novelist, playwright, courtier, and natural philosopher – describes the dance as, “Three girls, one with a tambourine (with bells on it) and castanets are used by the other two. The two girls with the castanets execute the steps. The girls steps are not distinctive or even graceful, basically they step in time and spin around in place using the castanets, when one tires, she trades places with the tambourine Girl” (They do this for fun for hours, 20-40 hours at times.)”

Curt Sachs, in his book “World History of the Dance”, describes the couples’ version of this dance. “The dancer, kneels in adoration of his female partner. As she dances for him, he, as though sated, speedily forsakes her again; how with a thousand turns and tricks he now holds aloof and now rushes upon her. His gambols and capers are grotesque (sloppy) and yet charming, light and tender. His bearing is yet proud and resolute, now querulous and elaborate. Leg’s and arms, even the fingers, strumming the tambourine (hers), and above all the “glance”, ardent, languishing, suddenly bold and shameless, reinforce the expression of the posture. The girl comes out of her corner, now wayward, now willing. Her smile is eloquent, her eyes are drunken. She swings her skirt; she picks up the corner as if to gather things in it; or she raises the arm so that the hand hangs down loosely over her head as though from a hook, while the other hand presses against her heart. Now she is the axis in which the male rotates.”

How To Do It

Madame Michau’s 8 Step Tarantella

In 1860 Eugene Coulon published a book called “Coulon’s Handbook” and describe the tarantella as Madame Michau, who introduced the dance to the public, with the caveat that “to dance the Tarantella in ballroom circles, as they danced it at Naples would be impossible. Therefore, when Madame Michau introduced it in London in 1844, she made a selection of only about eight steps or figures, that had great mastery among the higher classes there.”

Three Gallop steps (Triple) to the right, and slide the left foot forward (this to be repeated three times). The gentleman supports his lady on his right arm, without giving the left hand.
Three Gallop steps and slide the other foot forward in turning very rapidly, and repeated three times.
Ajetté in turning, fouetté, temps levé, and chassé … four times.
Echappé, and eight Gallop steps in crossing the room obliquely, facing his partner and holding both of her hands, and return in the same way to their places.
Four Gallop steps without turning, four jettés in turning and remaining in the same place.
Eight glissades turning to the right and the same to the left.
Gallop steps steps forwards, slide the foot backwards, and at the same time turn short round rapidly (this three times)
The Compass step (done four times).

Sicilian Tarantella

The Recreational Folk Dancing Website, authored by Bob Shapiro, has a detailed description of the Sicilian Tarantella.

Sets of two couples. Men next to each other facing their partners. Meter 6/8, counted as 1, 2

Lecce – Artistic by day and Entertaining by Night

The landscape of Lecce is mostly flat and dry. The houses and modern buildings tend to be low with flat roofs (except in the historic center). This creates somewhat of a “barracks” feel as you look around punctuated by an oasis of greenery from the public park -filled with palm trees, flower beds, benches and a majestic gazebo with a tiled dome. Open every day until sundown, it’s where everyone brings kids, dogs and books to wile away the afternoon.

The arid landscape changes dramatically as you head out of town toward the beaches. The land gives way to a seemingly endless expanse of crystal blue sky and sea. Lecce is located just about dead center of the heel of the Italian boot; a peninsula within a peninsula. Consequently, there is easy access to beaches on the eastern coast of the heel (Adriatic Sea) and the western coast of the heel (Ionian Sea). On any given day, you can choose your coast depending upon which way the wind is blowing. I’m not kidding. When the wind is blowing due east, go to the Adriatic. When it blows to the west, go to the Ionian coast. With so many sandy beachfronts at your disposal, you can afford to be picky. One of my favorite beaches is Torre di Chianca, on the Ionian coast. The sand is soft and the water is clean, clear and warm, even in October.

Piazza del Duomo

The historic center of Lecce is why the town is called “Florence of the South”. Filled with churches constructed in Baroque style, it’s easy to lose yourself and your way in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Eventually you’ll reach the Piazza del Duomo, the architectural centerpiece of town. Splendid in daylight, it’s especially beguiling at night. Indirect lighting installed throughout the Piazza illuminates the statuary, almost bringing them to life.

The historic center is also the place to go for entertainment and shopping. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gelato abound. During my stay, silent films starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were shown against the wall of an outdoor café. Like so many other Italian cities, you can walk out of anyplace directly onto an excavation of subterranean Roman structures. Now that’s entertainment!

The shopping in the historic center is quite diverse. In addition to Italian clothes, shoes and artwork, you can find African and Indonesian jewelry and furniture. A famous local craft is Cartapesta. This is a centuries-old technique of fashioning lifelike figures out of straw and paper mache. The figures are then painted so skillfully that they seem to be carved out of stone. The artisans in Lecce excel in religious and nativity statues, many of them life size.

High-end and designer shopping can be found just outside the historic center, at Piazza Mazzini. Max Mara, Missoni and Valle Verde are at your disposal, just to name a few. The Piazza is also home to a large stone fountain made with whimsical, impish figures perched throughout– peeking at you from under the streams of water and having great fun.

Saturday night is party night in Lecce. Around midnight, everyone drives into the historic center, creating bumper to bumper traffic seldom seen outside of New York City. Everyone miraculously finds parking and it’s off on foot to the bar of their choice. We chose Route 66, a noisy, crowded place with music videos playing from multiple screens, but no dancing. It’s a place to sit, smoke, drink and speak loudly.

After the bar, there’s always a party going on in somebody’s apartment. It’s a great opportunity to hear someone sing, watch someone else learn how to juggle, and try to find the bathroom. When this party dies down everyone heads to Leopardi, open 24 hours serving coffee, liquor and pastry. This place is very popular (especially around 3:00 a.m.) and there’s always a line to get in. We wait patiently and our reward is cappuccino and pastry amid the music and neon. Even as we leave about an hour later, the line outside is just as long and the place is just as lively as when we arrived. It makes you wonder if anyone in this town ever sleeps on a Saturday night.