The term “Tarantella” identifies a wide range of traditional dances, developed in Southern Italy, especially in Salento (Apulia), and Spain, originally employed for healing or trance purposes.
Various spellings have been employed to define this practice, yet they all incorporate the term tarant, which is also an anagram of tartan, the distinctive crossed and web-like design of Scottish kilts.
The dance was apparently used to cure the bite of the tarantula (Lycosa tarentula), a large hairy spider named after the Apulian city of Taranto. The spider was presumed to cause hallucinations and a series of physical disorders which were officially defined as tarantism. Extensive serious medical literature, written from the 15th to the 19th century, describes in detail symptoms and cases of this ailment, which could only be cured through a specific music based on fast rhythmic beats.
Specialised musicians were hired to play while the afflicted person (tarantolato) would dance for hours or even days until healing was accomplished. The recipient experienced deep trance and shape-shifting, behaving like kings or soldiers, simulating duels with swords, experiencing the prey’s fight in the entanglement of the spider web, becoming the spider itself, also shape-shifting into other animals like the serpent or scorpion, and covering a wide range of movements especially of a sexual nature.
The musical instruments employed in this context are mainly the violin, the tambourine, the castanets and also the bagpipe, the accordion and flute. The primary strance effect is generally caused by the tambourine (tamburello or tamburieddhu), whose alternation of double and triple beats reproduces a climax both in the painful separation of polarities and in their ecstatic unity.
This practice ritually opens up to the cathartic expression of the Sun and Moon polarities, with the aim of accessing the mysteries that exist beyond the realm of conflict and duality.
Tarantella is a significant example of cultural and religious shape-shifting of traditions dating back to most ancient times. Magna Grecia incorporated Southern Italy, which constituted a major site for the mystery practices related both to Dionysus and Apollo. These practices were the result of further adaptations and incorporated elements from ancient Egypt and pre-Celtic northern Europe.
Similar dancing practices have managed to survive in most parts of the planet, mainly thanks to the capacity to hide their original motivation and compromise with incompatible local and contemporary belief-systems.
There are currently three major types of tarantella dance: pizzica taranta, pizzica de core, pizzica scherma.
The pizzica taranta is the original individual or group therapeutic music and dance used to cure the bite of the taranta and its energetic implications.
The pizzica de core is a playful courting dance for couples.
The pizzica scherma (knives’ dance) is a duel dance between two males, in which the index and the middle finger of one hand represent the knife aimed at hitting the chest of the opponent.
The following is the traditional chant that accompanies the pizzica taranta.
O Santu Paulu meu delle tarante
che pizzichi le caruse tutte quante
O Santu Paulu meu delle tarante
che pizzichi le caruse ‘nmezz’all’anche
e le fai sante
O Santu Paulu meu de li scorpioni
che pizzichi li carusi int’a i balloni
(Oh my Saint Paul of the tarantulas
that stings all the girls
Oh my Saint Paul of the tarantulas
that stings the girls in the midst of the hips
and make them holy
Oh my Saint Paul of the scorpions
that stings the boys in the testicles)