Invitation to the Tarantella

Primitive man first of all expressed his feelings by means of movement. The origins of dance are thus very ancient indeed, predating music and, perhaps, language it self.

Through dance man could express emotions produced by a wealth of natural phenomena such as life, death, joy, sorrow, fear, courage and, to a certain extend, sex.

Erotic dance, however, also took on a religious significance through the fact that the union of man and woman symbolically embodied certain natural aspects of pure myth. By definition, dance is a rhythmic sequence of physical movements and positions, generally accompanied by music, by the noise of percussion instruments or by simple handclapping.
With the advent of settled civilization (farming communities in which men and women sweat blood from morning to night to earn a living from the soil)dance became part of ceremonial and found its true adepts. In the Orient, particularly , it was absorbed into religious rituals. Among the ancient Romans there was hardly any ceremony or banquet which did not feature eastern slave dancers to entice and delight the guests. Given the essentially erotic significance of dance, it is logical that in mediaeval Europe it was severely censured by the Church, and natural also that it was revived during the 16th century, especially at the court of France and in the various princely states in Italy.

Popular song, in fact, retains, something of the odd or the crazy about it, preserving thus a flavour of spontaneous artistic impulse among the various peoples from which it derives. The same is true of dance the whole world over.

This is a suitable moment to say something about the Tarantella, which is hardly the Cinderella among popular dances, On the contrary it earned praise from many illustrious foreigners, such as De Musset. In Naples it was so well loved that became a favourite with commoners and nobility all like. Madame De Stail defined it as " a dance full of grace and originality" and on one occasion, witnessing an exceptional performance of great artistic value, she praised the special gifts of a young dancer whose partner was a prince. When the dance was over, the prince gave the girl a chivalrous low bow. "All the youngsters present wanted to do the same" concludes Madame de Staël.

Another foreign visitor says : " One is justly amazed to find, amid so proverbially indolent a people, a dance such gaiety and liveliness".

Much has been written and said as to the origins of the dance and its name: There are those who state that the Moors and Spaniards introduced it among us .It seems to have e gun with a certain dance called of "Sfessania", favourite with the Neapolitans. "By the sea, on the beach of Posillipo, whenever a Turkish raid was not in the offing, youths and maidens, afire with pleasure, came together in the dance soon afterwards called the Tarantella" Many years later the Neapolitans on the same shores anxiously awaited the arrival of another kind of dancers, the liberating Americans with their boogie-woogie.

It is also maintained that the Tarantella derives either from the city of Taranto or the tarantula. Let me explain: the victims of the bite of this large spider would have found a cure from the effect of the poison through a strong sweat gained from whirling hither and thither in a therapeutic dance, imitating the tarantula, thus Tarantella.

A long time ago, in my innocent youth, while talking with a Caprese fisherman, an old man of over ninety. I happened to touch on the Tarantella. Without knowing it I had struck a sensitive chord in him, and from being laconic he grew suddenly very talkative. He told me that he used to dance the Tarantella for nearly sixty years, as part of one of the island' s leading groups, one of those groups far superior to all the others from the various parts of Campania and beyond. And it was logical that it should be so, declared the old fisherman, if we consider that the first Tarantella was danced in Capri by Greeks who landed there "many centuries ago" . Then, to my amazement, he started to unravel ancient myths and legend s, stories of shipwrecks and sirens, involving Ulysses himself.
I had to convince myself that the old man was not simply romancing, and in order to examine the material further I began to investigate not only the Greek origins of this dance but also its special associations with Capri. This confirmed, perhaps, by an undeniable fact: the various folk dance groups on the island have a barely imaginable competitive spirit and perform in a precise and orthodox way, free from affectation and the kind of mannerism which elsewhere rather too often typifies the sort of display all too obviously put on for tourists . To put it another way, the Capresi dance the Tarantella for sheer pleasure, and when dancing in public, aware of the large crowed and against a background of incomparably attractive scenery, they throw themselves into it with wild abandon. To conclude, it can be said that the Tarantella is one of the loveliest of popular dances, and that it scarcely matters whether it was the Turks or the Apaches who introduced it.
One fact it certain: if everybody practiced the Tarantella for half an hour a day, the positive effects on health would soon become obvious. The ladies would not have to try to lose weight, and instead of begin reduced to a diet of a grilled steak and small salad without salt or oil and half a boiled egg, they could eat their fill of spaghetti which , despite their Chinese origin, are best eaten here in Italy. What is more, there would be no sufferers from arthritis and related complaints, and for half an hour each day our houses would ring with the happy sound of "Cicerenella" or " Lu guarracino" which generally accompany the Tarantella.

Vincenzo Manganiello

Vincenzo Manganiello "Invitation to the Tarantella"
Azienda Autonoma di Cura Soggiorno e Turismo - Isola di Capri - 1980