The History of the Italian Tarantella Folk Dance

By Pamela Ann Ludwig
Italian couple dancing.

The tarantella is a lively dance form that originated in Italy. There are many folk dances in Italy but the tarantella is iconic, instantly recognizable as an image of Italian culture. In addition to the distinct movements and musical accompaniment, the tarantella dance has a colorful history and origin story.

Origin

Sicily, Italy.

The tarantella is a lively folk dance performed to a distinct, upbeat musical style. Originally from Southern Italy, different types of tarantellas are found in many cities in the mainland of Italy and the island of Sicily. The tarantella is believed to have started in the 15th century.

Where and When

Italian wedding.

Danced at weddings and other celebrations, the tarantella is a quick, energetic and festive dance. Today Italian communities in many countries dance tarantellas at social events. Those dedicated to preserving this unique dance tradition organize groups to perform at festivals and cultural celebrations.

The Name

Italy.

The name "tarantella" derives from the city of Taranto, Italy where the dance is believed to have originated. The name of the tarantula spider comes from the town of Taranto as well.The choreography and name of the dance is based on an old folk belief about the effect of a poisonous spider bite. It was believed that when someone was bitten by the tarantula, the only cure would be to dance the poison out of his system. For this reason, many consider the tarantella to be a healing or medicinal dance. Dance scholars offer various interpretations into the origins and meanings of the tarantella. Some choreographers continue to investigate the origins and uses of the tarantella, and integrate it into contemporary performances.

Couple's Dance

Couples dancing.

Couples often dance the tarantella. The two people performing a tarantella need not be a male and female, for many women dance the tarantella together. In the past, the tarantella was also considered a "courting dance" for males and females, though as a social dance form it is danced among family and friends as well.

Classical Ballet

Ballet dancer.

The ballet Napoli by Danish choreographer August Bournonville is set in the town of Napoli (Naples) Italy. Bournonville choreographed a tarantella to take place within the classical ballet. His version within the ballet is considered a faithful rendition of the original choreography of tarantellas. The famous Swan Lake features a scene with Italian princesses who perform a lively tarantella for Prince Siegfried. In the 20th century, New York City ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine also created a ballet called "Tarantella" which derived from and utilized folkloric steps from the tarantella. The traditional Italian costumes, props such as tambourines and high-heeled shoes in the place of pointe shoes, add to the authentic elements of tarantellas danced in classical ballets.

About the Author

Pamela Ann Ludwig has lived, worked and studied on five continents. Her articles can be seen online at various websites. She holds a Master of Arts degree in history from San Francisco State University and has experience teaching different dance disciplines as well as English to speakers of other languages.