If the name tarantella sounds vaguely familiar, it’s not surprising. Tarantella is an alternate Italian form of the word tarantula, probably referring to the wolf spider in several regions of Italy. The word does reference the spider in its origins, and some of the more modern pieces of tarantella music may be reminiscent of a spider, but more often the dance version was perhaps to cure spider bites, a futile act, since vigorous dancing would only cause venom to further be absorbed by the body.
The tarantella is mainly an Italian country partner dance, which features numerous twirls and spins. It was popularized as a ballroom dance by Madame Michau in the 19th century, and performed in France and England. The ballroom dance differs significantly from the country Italian dance, but it gets the main elements down. Usually music for the tarantella is in 6/8 or 3/4 time, or you may find some versions in 4/4 time with a lot of triplets. Though the dance is partnered, many of the steps are danced away from each other, and steps together are often taken with the partners side to side instead of face to face.
Many of the steps are in triples, like triple gallop steps to left and right. In the country dance version, women can partner with other women, but the ballroom dance features a male and female partner. The dance is always vigorous, and triumphs woman’s superiority over admiring men (at least during the dance).
As to the dance’s origins, there are actually multiple explanations. The dance may have originated in the small Italian village of Tarentum, though others suggest that this type of ecstatic dancing may go even farther back to dances performed by Grecian women to honor the God Dionysius. During the 15th to 17th centuries, women in Italy may have suffered from a malaise and illness called tarantata, tarantismus, or tarantate. The cure was vigorous dancing (not such an unsound way to cure minor depression). Some suggest that the condition of tarantate was believed to be caused by a spider bite, but here again, there’s no suggestion that a spider existed in Italy that could cause depression or delusions.
Another possible explanation is that the dance as “treatment” was a way of getting around church prohibitions of dancing, since it was considered a sinful act. Yet if the dance was sound for medical purposes, or so it was thought, people could rejoice in doing a dance that clearly referenced men and women’s relationships. This wasn’t sinful, but rather “medicine.” Whatever the origin, you’ll find numerous versions of the music in modern times.
You’ll hear the music in the beginning scenes of The Godfather at Connie’s wedding, and again in the sequels. If you can find it on VHS or DVD, you can also watch the ballet, La Tarentule, first choreographed and performed in 1839. If you happen to have the luck to attend a very traditional Southern Italian wedding, you may see the tarantella danced. It is thought that at one time, most weddings in southern parts of Italy would have included the dance at weddings, as shown in Coppola’s films.