How Italy Found Its Groove With the Famed Tarantella

The Tarantella, a centuries-old dance, evolved from a unique, ritual-like practice.

The following article was written by ISDA Contributing Editor Tony Traficante. 

What a fascinating story behind this dance! Just think: the famed Tarantella gained its first step from a ritual-like practice that involved escaping the sting of a spider. It gained its name from whence it came — Taranto, Italy — where the wolf spiders (tarantulas) scampered around in droves.

The rituals go back to the 1400s, when the afflicted were observed flinging about wildly, attempting to sweat out the spider toxin. The two-step venom caused the bitten to hop about excitedly, as if they were dancing. (Indeed, the devil made them do it!)

Some Italian doctors were enthusiastic about the dance-like movement and introduced it as a cure for neurotic women (Spoiler alert: There were no reports of prescribing it to men!)

Soon, sympathetic neighbors — in their desire to assist the bitten — added music, a little grape, and eventually the movement blossomed into the wonderful Tarantella dance. Popular with the “peasantry,” it was frowned upon by the snobbish Italian “gentry,” who believed the newfound, teasing movements were a bit risqué and inappropriate.

Transformed from its primitive beginnings, the Tarantella evolved into an elegant, graceful dance, not unlike a ‘ballet.’ While in motion, couples twirl about the dance floor, break away, then come back into a tender embrace. Women flirt and tease, spinning gracefully about the room, while the men respond with movements of submission, sensitivity and admiration.

From Sicily, the dance sensation spun across the plains of Naples, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria; each developing their own particular version of the Tarantella. Considered bad luck to swing it alone, the famed dance became a couple, or group dance.

Today, one rarely experiences an Italian social without the occasion of a Tarantella, or two. It is un ballo stimolante e dinamico”, an exciting, dynamic dance.

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