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Home > Heritage > Tarantella
Tarantella: An Italian Folk Dance
By Fiona Story
In Italian culture, the word “tarantella” evokes images of a frenzied spinning dance traditionally played at weddings. However, this popular native dance of Southern Italy has a history and myth spanning several centuries.

The dance, originally an Italian folk dance of the lower- and middle-classes, has been labeled as a dance to cure sickness and as a dance of courtship. In the courtship version of the dance, the woman uses rapidity and liveliness to excite the love of her partner. In turn, the man tries to charm her with his agility, elegance and demonstrations of tenderness. The dance is one of unity and separation, which sees dancers flying into each other’s arms only to bound away again.

It is considered unlucky to dance the Tarantella alone so it is often danced by couples or by two women.

The earliest historical mention of the Tarantella is the St. Vitus Dance in 1374. It’s not mentioned again until 1839, as the title of a ballet, “La Tarentule,” produced by Jean Coaralli. In 1844, Madame Michau introduced the dance to the public.

Three possible sources of origin for the dance are given. The first originates with the bite of the Tarantula, Arania or Apulcian Spider. The dance itself was used to cure the poison from the bite of the spider. Town folks would play music and the afflicted person would dance non-stop to avoid succumbing to the poison.


The second origin lies in the religious story of the St. Vitus Dance, which is commonly referred to as the outbreak of dancing in the Middle Ages. The myth begins with the young people of Saxony dancing in the churchyard of St. Magnus. Fifteen youths and four girls were dancing and singing so loudly that they disturbed the priest. Angered, the priest prayed to God and St. Magnus to make the youth dance for a whole year. The outbreak of dancing went unexplained until the realization that the dancers had been bitten by the Tarantula Spider.

The final possible origin for the dance is said to be in the villages of Toranto and Tarantum. Women working in the fields would use frenetic dancing when they were bitten by spiders in order to sweat the venom out through their pores.

The Tarantella-type of dancing is not limited to just Italy. In Buzabatt, Persia, there is a Tarantella dance which is similar to the one found in Southern Italy. The Furlana or Fourlane found in Venice is also similar to the Tarantella although it is more irregular and brusque and danced mainly among gondoliers. The Saltarello in Rome and Venice also bear some semblance to the Tarantella.

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