Pizzica and ritualistic dance today
— October 13, 2020

Pizzica is a traditional Southern Italian dance, mainly performed in pairs within a circle of spectators. Tambourines, violins, and other regional instruments accompany the dance with high tempo music. This folk dance is originally derived from Tarantism, a ritual of exorcism involving dance, music, and symbolic colors to expel the “poison” of a spider bite, which places the sick one into a state of existential crisis. In Blasphemy Rhapsody choreographers Emio Greco | Pieter C. Scholten connect to this ritual, reminding us of how movement can shake off the sickness which afflicts our hearts: by coming together to dance and to watch dance.

Text: Moreno Perna

The history of Pizzica, or Tarantella (the name depends on the Italian region where it was practiced), dates to the Middle Ages, with its first notation in literature, and even further back to Ancient times. It can be traced to when the Greek influence of the colonies of Magna Graecia and the resident Italic populations in the most Southern part of the Italian peninsula combined and married each other.

As Ernesto De Martino explains in The Land of Remorse, the most influential anthropological study on Taranta rituals, it was originally a pagan ceremony that was later adapted to the Christian calendar. Every year on the 29th of June, the “tarantati” performed the ritual, first in their homes, and then in churches for the annual celebration of Saint Pieter and Paul. They would dance for days, only breaking at lunch time for the musicians and at night. The ritual did not stop until “grace” was given to them by Saint Paul.

Maria di Nardò in a state of trance, San Paolo di Galatina,1959 (Foto Pinna)

Why dance as a means for healing?

The Taranta is a mythical creature, a monster with characteristics of both spiders and scorpions, and in some cases also snakes. The cases of bites from real spiders (lycosa) became an example and symbol of inner sickness caused by the unconscious. Because of its annual repetition, it was as if the “tarantati” were bitten again every year by a spider-sickness living within them.  De Martino saw the symbol of the Taranta as a ‘mythical-ritual horizon of evocation, configuration, outflow and resolution of unresolved psychic conflicts that ‘remorse’ in the darkness of the unconscious’. 1

It was indeed a cultural event, organized so that everyone afflicted by depression or any other source of inner sickness could shake the pain out of their body. In order to kill the inner creature, they had to imitate the dance of the little spider (tarantella) and dance with it, or even better become the spider. They danced on the floor, shook and imitated animals, always following the pressing rhythm of the music: here we see the dualistic nature of Tarantism as exorcism and adorcism (possession).2

This dance session on the floor was identified by De Martino as the first of two phases of a ritualistic dance. The second phase was one of “opposition”: to stand up and run, skip and jump. They would imagine chasing the spider, forcing it to dance until exhaustion and trying to kill it under their feet. Over time these became the basics of the more formal folk-dance Pizzica (or Tarantella), danced in couples and groups.

Dance was the only way to shake the poison out of their body, to re-balance their energies. But they were not healed forever: every year in the days before the 29th of June their sickness seemed to return, and they had to start the ritual all over again. They would often repeat this for 10 years, and in some cases even more.

Why connecting to this dance, today?

As the annual nature of the Pizzica indicates, sickness can always come back. The importance is not in healing completely, but in coming together and repeating the ritual to heal individually and symbolically as a community. This is what dance can do for the community. The need to come together and live a similar ritual is today crystalized in a black room with red velvet chairs: the theatre. Emio Greco | Pieter C. Scholten know very well the importance of coming together to watch a performance. Here is the ritual: watching dance as a catharsis.

A performance calls us back to the theatre, to come together to heal as a community, to escape sadness, to rediscover a part of ourselves. As in Tarantism, healing is not assured forever: but in the theatre, we can let our fears, emotions and imagination run with the dancers on stage and let them dance our poisons out.

The tarantati say to feel ‘broken’, ‘crashed’, ‘obliterated’, ‘overwhelmed’, or ‘hurt’, ‘bored’, as if struck by a deep tedium of oneself and things.3 A description that sounds eerily familiar, now that we all feel attacked by the Covid-19 pandemic. If not our body, it attacked our mind and our sense of security. Our homes became living space, offices, dens and cages all at the same time.

Picture form “The Land of Remorse” by Ernesto De Martino (1961).

Emio Greco is originally from Calabria and has a direct connection to the Land of Remorse, South Italy. I myself feel connected to the Pugliese side of my family. Through my own Auratic Practice, I sense inner energies and try to balance them through ritualistic dance, most of which is inspired by Tarantism. But I also feel the need to go to the theatre and watch dance, to come together with others that might feel like I do.

Blasphemy Rhapsody has a dark atmosphere, but the dancers are dressed in white as if they were patients, or participants of a modern dance ritual. We see the group coming together, exorcising the “evil” out, but also going through a personal journey, with a sense of being alone. They must go through the ritual alone to heal themselves, connect to their own inner Taranta, dance with it and against it. And we can join as spectators: our minds dance alone, and together with each of the dancers.

The theatre is a safe space to let your heart and imagination open. The stage becomes the mirror of our soul, if we allow it. And if we do so, we can dance on stage with them, just by watching. We can be as alone as we want, or as together with the community, as we like. The choice is ours. Watching dance is dancing in our minds and allowing the ritual to happen every time we sit on that velvet chair.

Moreno Perna (1989) is an Italian performer and choreographer based in Amsterdam. He took part in the ICK residency program New Adventures in 2018 – 2019 where he further developed his Auratic Practices and created the performance Aura (2019). He is currently working in Communications & Marketing for Dance and is doing an internship at the communications department of ICK. Soon he will be offering Auratic Practice sessions online.

  1. “The Land of Remorse” by Ernesto De Martino (1961).
  2. “Il tarantismo oggi –  Antropologia, politica, cultura” by Giovanni Pizza (2015).
  3. “The Land of Remorse” by Ernesto De Martino (1961)
— Article written by Moreno Perna


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