Faculty of Medicine
Memorial University of Newfoundland

A Tarantella Comes to Newfoundland.
What should we do about it?

by Dr. John Crellin

Inspired by the popular Italian folk dance of the same name, Tarantella is a highly charged and technically challenging pas de deux. The fifteenth-century folk legend surrounding the dance said that those who were bitten by the deadly spider had to dance to sweat out its poison, thus the accelerating pace and urgency of the piece. This high speed pas de deux is vibrant, colourful and entertaining.
(From program notes to tarantella)

Visitors to the recent performances of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Newfoundland undoubtedly enjoyed the tarantella. Aside from the fascination of the Balanchine choreography, one could also muse and travel back in time to between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries when tarantism - a stuporous condition attributed to the bite of the tarantula - was especially prevalent, mostly in southern Italy.

But was the intent of the dance to sweat out the "poison"? Though this was one reason put forward at the time, other explanations of the tarantella - that brought sufferers out of their lethargic state - included the view that the condition was feigned in order to generate income for the musicians who played the tarantella!

Many explanations, aside from the spider bite, have also been put forward over time to account for tarantism, which generally affected women: (i) heat exhaustion; (ii) a neurosis or sudden occurrence of a mental disorder; (iii) spirit possession; (iv) mass psychogenic illness; (v) a variant of the dancing mania or St. Vitus dance (a dance to ask the blessing of St. Vitus); and (vi) hysteria.

Tarantism is generally considered to have faded in the eighteenth century; modern writings commonly view tarantism as a "psychiatric" disorder, though anthropologists such as R.E. Bartholomew argue that retrospective diagnoses of "mass psychogenic illnesses" ignore the possibility that the episodes involve normal people who held differing world views and who followed different calendar customs and rituals.

Irrespective of the interpretation of tarantism, the tarantella has long been viewed as an example of music and dance in treatment and healing. Many an early medical discussion resonates with the language of the current wellness and holistic medicine literature. Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), to take a classical text, noted that the tarantula bite produces melancholy and that music is a "sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself." Burton also spoke approvingly of the saying "a time to mourn and a time to dance."

Over time, music and dance therapy have generally only skirted around conventional medical therapy, even within psychiatry. Nowadays, despite the emergence of professional music/dance therapists, it seems that it is the alternative medicine movement that is encouraging general interest. The current issue of Alternative & Complementary Therapies, for instance, has a long discussion on the role of music in healing. It quotes the Canadian Association for Music Therapy in saying that music aids the physical, physiologic, and emotional integration of the individual in the treatment of illness or disability.

Is there a general message here? At a time when sections of the public are asking for broad, holistic approaches to health care, perhaps tarantellas should not be isolated to Arts and Culture Centres. Should we consider integrating them (along with other music/dance opportunities) into the services of our health care institutions?

Last updated 28-Nov-96 by