Tarantella, an ancient Sicilian dance ritual

Dancer Lindsay Poulis twirls to the tambourine rhythm of Alessandra Belloni

Dancer Lindsay Poulis twirls to the tambourine rhythm of Alessandra Belloni

My Italian ancestors lived in the Dolomite Mountains, the Alps near the Austrian border. However, there’s a theory that the family name, Ciliotta, referred to a migration from Sicily (note the “cil” in both words), many centuries back. So when I took a workshop to experience the tarantella, a healing dance ritual from Sicily, I may have invoked the memory of those ancient forebears.

There are two types of tarantella, and we practiced both of them under the guidance of Alessandra Belloni, who has been studying and teaching the tarantella for over 30 years. The courtly dance with prescribed steps is for two partners, mimicking a courtship and eventual union. It is a social dance, still performed today in the streets and dance halls of Sicily, to the accompaniment of tambourines and musical ensembles.

The ritual version is performed at breakneck speed, to a complex tambourine beat, and was designed to cure the bite of the tarantula through exertion and sweating. However, it is also said to be a holdover from Dionysian rites and goddess rituals suppressed by the Catholic Church. Alessandra’s studies revealed that the tarantella had a curative effect on depression, especially in women.

She learned the dance ritual from Sicilian peasants. The repetitive steps, to a hypnotic beat, eventually give way to spontaneous movement and, in some cases, trance, as the music possesses the dancer, and she writhes on the ground, releasing emotional and sexual blockages. Alessandra told us stories of women she has worked with ritually who had suffered sexual abuse and who were freed from the effects of their trauma by dancing the tarantella.

I can’t discuss the effects of the ritual on the women in our group of participants, since the discussion afterward was confidential, but I can say that there were moments of release for all of us. Alessandra, who maintains the enveloping tambourine beat and functions as a shaman in the ritual, noticed that one woman had gone into a trance and poured water over her head to bring her out, after she completed her dance.

For me, the experience was a high. I didn’t think I could physically endure the length of time the group had to keep up a vigorous, repetitive step while each woman took her turn at the sheet—a white sheet with red ribbons, laid on the floor for the writhing. But once I settled into the beat, my strength turned out to more than I expected, while the movement opened me and made me feel glad to be giving support to the other women. (Men are invited to dance as well, but this workshop happened to be all-female.)

Finally my turn came to approach the sheet. Down on the ground, twitching and convulsing, I felt deliciously released, for a few ecstatic minutes, from the constraint of my ordered life.

After we each had our turn, the whole group began spinning while moving in a circle, another potentially trance-inducing activity. I had giddy, childlike moments of liberation as I twirled, until the dizziness made me change direction. We were told that reversing direction would help with the vertigo, while if we stopped, it would be worse. In some settings, people ignore the dizziness and spin until they vomit—also a way of getting rid of tarantula toxins. But we didn’t vomit.

Then we all lay on the floor, and Alessandra walked among us, swirling a large hand drum that contained beads, making the sound of the ocean tide. As in West African Dagara ritual (see previous posts), water is the cooling, calming element that heals at the end of the catharsis.

I didn’t receive any major insights or changes within the ritual, but I have to say, my husband and I had a breakthrough in our relationship the next day.

Grazie, tarantella, and grazie, Alessandra!

For more information on Alessandra Belloni’s workshops and performances (she is an artist-in-residence at St. John the Divine in NYC), see http://alessandrabelloni.com/.

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8 Responses to Tarantella, an ancient Sicilian dance ritual

  1. Excellent! Thanks for the great story, and also for teaching me what the word “tarantella” means. I’ve been wondering ever since Rain Dogs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2Tn8w1w2_Y

  2. Anonymous says:

    So glad we got to do this together, Violet! It would not have been the same without YOU!

  3. K says:

    Fascinating – I happened on this by accident. Guess I was meant to see it.

    • visnow77 says:

      Hey, cool! Did you look around at some of the other posts? I don’t know how you feel about your ancestors. I could put you on the email list if you want–let me know.

  4. Stacy Horn says:

    I think I’d be too self-conscious to do the sheet part!

    • visnow77 says:

      Once you’ve seen someone else do it, there’s a beauty and power to it that makes you want to try. And you’ve already been dancing and drumming with a group of people (women, this case) for several hours, which creates a kind of intimacy. It didn’t feel self-conscious to me at all. I”m sure you have an exhibitionist side, or you wouldn’t be a writer. 😉

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