Music and dance are main elements of ritual and belief across the world. Music and dance speak to our senses, our bodies, our spirits, they transform our emotional and physical states. In Southern Italy, there has in the last 20 years been a boom of the traditional musics and dances. Tarantella refers to a variety of folk dances in southern Italy. It has a fast-paced 6/8 rhythm and it is danced in circles or in couples.
The tarantellas’ origins are associated with the healing ritual of tarantism through its name (tarantella= the little spider). The ritual of tarantism was aimed at curing a believed spider bite with music and dance. Tarantism was still practised in Salento, the heel of the boot of Italy in the 1950s. The academic discourse on tarantism has for hundreds of years shaped the understanding and evolution of the phenomenom. Medical discourse saw tarantism either as a disease caused by the poison of the spider or as an hysterical mental disorder.
Those bitten by the spider (tarantata) were usually women, belonging to the poorest classes who were working in the fields during summer. Music was believed to be the only thing that could cure the afflicted person so the family invited and paid for musicians to come and play for the afflicted. The musicians’ task was to find the right melodic structure that would please the tarantata and excite her to dance in response. The ritual could go on for hours or days, until the dancer stopped dancing, receiving the grace of St. Paul, the saint of tarantism.
The tarantella (or the regional tarantella of Salento, the pizzica) was played at other occassions than the healing ritual, such as at weddings and funerals. The pizzica has though in the contemporary movement moved out from the familiar and private settings to the piazzas and the performance stage.
I have interviewed dancers and dance teachers in the contemporary movement of traditional and popular dance in Italy and around Europe. Initially I was interested in how the healing aspect of tarantism is remembered. The subaltern, the possessed victim of tarantism, has become a celebrated symbol, and is even understood as part of local identity. During my research, I got particularly interested in the transformations of womens’ roles between past and present.The dancers perceive the popular dance as a way of reconnecting to oneself, to others and to the history of Southern Italy. The dancers are exploring the artistic, but also ritual and therapeutical dimensions of the tarantella. What are the intersections between (ritual) creativity, reviving traditions and spirituality in the dance movement?
Sofia Silfvast is writing her masters’ thesis on the contemporary movement of southern Italian tarantella at the Intercultural Encounters Masters’ Programme, University of Helsinki.