Dance Tidbits: Dances of Italy

When I think of Italy, I think of all the fabulous food that comes out of that country. Most Americans are hooked on Italian cooking, i.e. pizza, pasta and focaccia bread, etc. We have embraced Italian cuisine for centuries in this country. Just like their wonderful cooking, I find the people warm, friendly and full of grand gestures. I like how they combine their food, singing and merriment with their own authentic dances.

Italian dancing dates back to Medieval times. Italians in the 12 th to 14th centuries invented a circle dance where they not only danced but sang too. Now, you would think that singing with dancing is festive and an occasion for happiness. Although still very social, it seems that back in those days, people also sang and danced to tell tales of woe, i.e. hardship and death.

In the Renaissance period of dance (15th century) in Italy, it seems the popular forms of folk dances depicted towns and countryside and were done by nobility. The courts of nobility elevated dance to an art form. Even though people still danced in circles or did round dancing, the new forms of dance involved people dancing as couples. Soon choreography occurred and it spread throughout Italy.

In the 15th century, the Italians divided their dances into two types, the bassadanza and the ballo. The bassadanza is a slow dignified dance without leaps or hops. The ballo is a livelier dance often displaying pantomime elements. Both of these dances are for couples, holding hands or in lines. It seems that in the late 16th and 17th century, many social dances developed slower in nature and for single couples and even trios or five dancers. These dances were for both men and women. It seems like they kind of invented some kind of ballroom dancing without even realizing it, because the dances were designed to keep the upper body erect, the arms quiet without any movement above the waist. Some forms of ballroom dance require this kind of form.

The dances of Italy combine historical, cultural and colonial influences. Yet the people of Italy are proud of their folk dances and have continually kept them alive throughout the centuries. For example, Monferrina is a lively folk dance from Montferrat, Piedmont and is danced by several couples. The La Lachera is a weapons dance. It is derived from a revolt against a medieval tyrant from a town called Rocca Grimalda in Piedmont. An interesting dance done by an engaged couple and accompanied by an escort of two masked dancers, who do a characteristic dance with high leaps. Also present are three armed figures. Ballu Tundu is a traditional Sardinian folk dance. It is typically danced in a closed or open circle. In northern and central Sardinia, the dance is lively and animated with leaps with agile movements. The Saltarello is a musical dance done in a fast triple meter. It originated in Tuscany and combines leaping and jumping steps. An interesting dance is the Furlana, dating back as far as 1583, it is a fast dance with underlying Slavonic ties with Poland or Croatia. Originally it was a courtship dance done by a couple. Then it became popular as a theatre and social dance. And was danced by the famous Casanova in 1775.

Probably one of the most famous dances in all of Europe was developed in Italy in the 18th century. This dance is called the Tarantella. The Tarantella is a group of folk dances that usually have upbeat tempos and accompany a tambourine. Tarantella is especially popular at Italian weddings and celebrations, complete with rhythmic song and dance. Interestingly enough, the Tarantella (song) is the most popular of all Italian songs and is described as “the song of Italy.” The dance embraces light and quick steps that are lively and filled with passionate gestures.


I have done a blog on the Tarantella before and one of the most fascinating things about this dance is the legend behind the name “Tarantella.” Between the 15th and 17th centuries there was an epidemic that swept through the town of Taranto in southern Italy. People (mostly women), were being bit by the poisonous tarantula spider. Once you were bitten, you would fall into a trance that could only be cured by frenzied dancing. People would surround the victim while musicians would play mandolins, guitars and tambourines. Supposedly, the musicians were in search for the right rhythm that would cure the victim. The other version of the legend is that there was this woman who was depressed and frustrated with her life. She would fall into a trance that could only be cured by music and dance. This display of despair would be the center of attention in the town. It usually took three days of music and dance to allegedly cure the woman of frustration and depression. Personally, it sounds like she was just trying to get attention and succeeded.

So as you can see, Italian dances are very much like the Italian people themselves. There are many dances from many regions. All dances are lively and filled with grand gestures that tell stories. And as popular as Italy is for its renowned food and fine art, it probably is no comparison to the rich, historic culture of song and dance that originated from that country. I could go on forever and list many more dances of the Italian peninsula, but I think I’ll stop now. I’ve made myself hungry for some pizza!


Thought Of The Week:

Whoever is supposed to be on the journey with you always shows up sooner or later – Facebook/Zen to Zany


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website