Dancing the Tarantella

Dancing the Tarantella

Throughout history, dancing has been used as a way to celebrate, worship, uplift, and cure, and countries around the world have folk dances that tell stories and bring insight into its rich history. Italy is no exception, with dozens of beautiful folk dances created within its timeline. Of all the Italian folk dances out there, none are more notable than the Tarantella.

Today, if you mention the word “tarantella” in Italy, you might be met with descriptions of a frenzied wedding dance. But really, this folk dance has a much darker history spanning several centuries.


Also known as “the dance of the spider,” the Tarantella is derived from the Italian word tarantola, meaning “tarantula.” The tarantola gets its name from the town of Taranto in Puglia, where the bite of the local wolf spider (the tarantula) was widely believed to be highly poisonous and led to a condition known as “tarantism.”

Tarantism was an epidemic that swept through Taranto and other parts of Italy between the 15th and 17th centuries. According to legend, once bitten by a tarantula, the victim, referred to as the tarantata — who was almost always a woman of lower status — would fall into a fit in which she was plagued by heightened excitability and restlessness. Eventually, she would succumb to the condition and die.

The only cure, it seemed, was to engage in the frenzied dancing ritual of the Tarantella. Townspeople would surround the tarantata while musicians would play instruments such as mandolins, guitars, and tambourines in different tempos in search of the correct healing rhythm. Each varied beat would affect the tarantata, leading her to move in erratic ways in line with the tempo. Once the correct rhythm was found, the victim — dancing the Tarantella alone until exhausted — was thought to be cured, having “sweated out” the venom!

Picture depicting Italians dancing the Tarantella dance


As the passage of time faded the legend’s mystique, the Tarantella eventually transformed from a cure to a deadly disease to a couple’s dance — either a man and woman, or two women — performed at wedding ceremonies and other celebrations. In fact, the Tarantella is now considered unlucky by some to be danced alone.

With music written in a lively 6/8 time, this rapid whirling dance is characterized by light, quick steps, and flirtatious gestures between the two partners. Typically, the woman carries a tambourine, and her rapid movements are used as a way to excite her counterpart. On the other hand, the man’s movements are made to charm his partner with his agility and tenderness. Sounds suave, indeed!


At your next celebration, instead of the Waltz, Tango, or Electric Slide, take a stab at dancing the Tarantella!