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This article is about the Italian folk dance style. For formal performance dance, see Tarantella (ballet). For other uses, see Tarantella (disambiguation).
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Tarantella rhythm.[1]

Tarantella (Italian pronunciation: [taranˈtɛlla]) is a group of various folk dances characterized by a fast upbeat tempo, usually in 6/8 time (sometimes 18/8 or 4/4), accompanied by tambourines.[2] It is among the most recognized forms of traditional southern Italian music. The specific dance-name varies with every region, for instance tammuriata in Campania, pizzica in the Salento region, Sonu a ballu in Calabria. Tarantella is popular in Southern Italy and Argentina.


Italian women dance the tarantella, 1846

In the Italian province of Taranto, Apulia, the bite of a locally common type of wolf spider, named "tarantula" after the region,[3] was popularly believed to be highly poisonous and to lead to a hysterical condition known as tarantism.[4] This became known as the Tarantella. The oldest documents mentioning the relationship between musical exorcism and the tarantula date to around 1100 BC[citation needed]. R.Lowe Thompson proposed that the dance is a survival from a "Dianic or Dionysiac cult", driven underground.[5] John Compton later proposed that the Roman Senate had suppressed these ancient Bacchanalian rites. In 186 BC the tarantella went underground, reappearing under the guise of emergency therapy for bite victims.[6]

The tradition persists in the area, and is known as "Neo-Tarantism". Many young artists, groups and famous musicians continue to keep the tradition alive. The music is very different—its tempo is faster, for one thing—but it has similar hypnotic effects, especially when people are exposed to the rhythm for a long period of time. The music is used[by whom?] in the therapy of patients with certain forms of depression and hysteria, and its effects on the endocrine system recently[when?] became an object of research[citation needed].

Courtship vs tarantism dances[edit]

The stately courtship tarantella danced by a couple or couples, short in duration, is graceful and elegant and features characteristic music. On the other hand, the supposedly curative or symptomatic tarantella was danced solo by a supposed victim of a tarantula bite; it was agitated in character, lasted for hours or even up to days, and featured characteristic music. However, other forms of the dance were and still are couple dances (not necessarily a couple of different sexes) usually either mimicking courtship or a sword fight. The confusion appears to arrive from the fact that the spiders, the condition, its sufferers ('tarantolati'), and the dances all have similar names to the city of Taranto.[7]

The first dance originated in the Apulia region and spread next to all part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Neapolitan tarantella is a courtship dance performed by couples whose "rhythms, melodies, gestures, and accompanying songs are quite distinct" featuring faster more cheerful music. Its origins may further lie in "a fifteenth-century fusion between the Spanish Fandango and the Moresque 'ballo di sfessartia'." The "magico-religious" tarantella is a solo dance performed supposedly to cure through perspiration the delirium and contortions attributed to the bite of a spider at harvest (summer) time. The dance was later applied as a supposed cure for the behavior of neurotic women ('Carnevaletto delle donne').[8]

The original legend tells that someone who had supposedly been bitten by the tarantula (or the Mediterranean black widow) spider had to dance to an upbeat tempo to sweat the poison out.[citation needed]

There are several traditional tarantella groups: 'Cantori di Carpino', 'Officina Zoé', 'Uccio Aloisi gruppu', 'Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino', 'Selva Cupina', 'I Tamburellisti di Torrepaduli'.

The tarantella is most commonly played with a mandolin, a guitar, an accordion and tambourines. Flute, fiddle, trumpet and clarinet are also used.


Main article: Tarantism

Tarantism, as a ritual, has roots in the ancient Greek myths. Reportedly, victims who had collapsed or were convulsing would begin to dance with appropriate music and be revived as if a tarantula had bitten them. The music used to treat dancing mania appears to be similar to that used in the case of tarantism though little is known about either. Justus Hecker (1795–1850), describes in his work Epidemics of the Middle Ages:

A convulsion infuriated the human frame [...]. Entire communities of people would join hands, dance, leap, scream, and shake for hours [...]. Music appeared to be the only means of combating the strange epidemic [...] lively, shrill tunes, played on trumpets and fifes, excited the dancers; soft, calm harmonies, graduated from fast to slow, high to low, prove efficacious for the cure.[9]

The music used against spider bites featured drums and clarinets, was matched to the pace of the victim, and is only weakly connected to its later depiction in the tarantellas of Chopin, Liszt, Rossini, and Heller.[10]

While most serious proponents speculated as to the direct physical benefits of the dancing rather than the power of the music a mid-18th century medical textbook gets the prevailing story backwards describing that tarantulas will be compelled to dance by violin music.[11] It was thought that the Lycosa tarantula wolf spider had lent the name "tarantula" to an unrelated family of spiders having been the species associated with Taranto, but since the lycosa tarantula is not inherently deadly in summer or in winter,[11] the highly venomous Mediterranean black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) may have been the species originally associated with Taranto's manual grain harvest.

The Tarantella is a dance in which the dancer and the drum player constantly try to upstage each other by dancing longer or playing faster than the other, subsequently tiring one person out first.

Grand Tarantella ballet[edit]

The Balanchine ballet Tarantella is set to the Grande Tarantella for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 67 (ca. 1866) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, reconstructed and orchestrated by Hershy Kay. The profusion of steps and the quick changes of direction this brief but explosive pas de deux requires typify the ways in which Balanchine expanded the traditional vocabulary of classical dance.

Notable tarantellas[edit]

Classical music[edit]

Other uses[edit]

In literature[edit]

In film[edit]

In games[edit]

In manga/anime[edit]

  • In "Axis Powers Hetalia", Southern Italy/Romano cures his disease by dancing the tarantella with Spain. One of the songs sung by him, "The Delicious Tomato Song", is a tarantella.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blatter, Alfred (2007). Revisiting music theory: a guide to the practice, p.28. ISBN 0-415-97440-2.
  2. ^ Morehead, P.D., Bloombury Dictionary of Music, London, Bloombury, 1992
  3. ^ Linnaeus would name the spider Lycosa tarantula in 1758
  4. ^ "POISONOUS SPIDER BITES.". The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 8 September 1923. p. 2. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  5. ^ R.Lowe Thompson. The History of the Devil. Paul, Trench, Tubner and Co. (1929), p.164.
  6. ^ John Compton. The Life of the Spider. Mentor Books (1954), p. 56f.
  7. ^ Toschi, Paolo (1950). Proceedings of the Congress Held in Venice September 7th to 11th, 1949: "A Question about the Tarantella", Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 2. (1950), p. 19. Translated by N. F.
  8. ^ Ettlinger, Ellen (1965). Review of "La Tarantella Napoletana" by Renato Penna (Rivista di Etnografia), Man, Vol. 65. (Sep. – Oct., 1965), p. 176.
  9. ^ Hecker, Justus. Quoted in Sear, H. G. (1939).
  10. ^ Sear, H. G. (1939). "Music and Medicine", p.45, Music & Letters, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Jan., 1939), pp. 43–54. Note that Sear may mistake the Neapolitan and Apulian tarantellas and that those by Romantic composers to which he refers may have been intended as Neapolitan.
  11. ^ a b Rishton, Timothy J. (1984). "Plagiarism, Fiddles and Tarantulas", The Musical Times, Vol. 125, No. 1696. (Jun., 1984), pp. 325–327.

External links[edit]