An Ancient Dance in a Modern World

Tarantella thrives on southern soil. Rosa Voto shares her love for tarantella paying homage to her ancestors' traditions and rituals and challenging modern-day stereotypes.

Like many Italo-Australians, I grew up not exactly knowing what tarantella was. At Italian weddings and dinner dances, I was led to believe it was the "“circle" dance when everyone holds hands, takes over a room, and parades throughout the tables and chairs. On some occasions, tarantella (very sadly) was even labeled as "“the chicken dance." However, tarantella is rich in tradition and dates back to Magna Graecia.

Rosa Voto, founder and director of the Melbourne School of Tarantella, is an Italian-born vocalist, educator, and dancer who started the school 10 years ago with a vision to preserve and share tarantella Down Under: 

After the birth of my second child, I realized we weren't going back to Italy anytime soon, and it would be hard to pass on a strong sense of my root culture. Music, song, and dance continue to keep me connected to my family, and cultural identity, and I hope that tarantella will do the same for my children.

From weekly classes for just a couple of students, the school has grown to offer community workshops, school incursion programs, and music and dance performances for public and private events.

Rosa Voto tarantella
Rosa Voto with her School of Tarantella performers

To speak about tarantella as a single dance is incorrect. It is a group of folk dances characterized by similar beats, tempos, and instruments, including pizzica and tammurriata. According to Rosa, "“there are many different styles and reasons why you would dance tarantella. It celebrates and embraces the community and expresses life without words."

The word itself means "“little spider" and is connected to tarantism, a disease or form of hysteria in 15th -17th century Italy. Legend has it that if a spider bit you, it would inject you with poison so as to make you feel restless, depressed, and hysterical. Entire communities would then gather and play the tamburello, accordion, violin, and guitar as the person danced in a trance-like state. The community would re-enact a ritualistic rebirth so that eventually the person would be healed.

Born in Puglia before moving to Firenze at age 6, Rosa credits her creativity and curiosity of tarantella to her upbringing in various parts of Italy:

My great-grandmother from Puglia showed me how to dance the traditional pizzica and play the tamburello, my grandfather from Puglia was a successful tap dancer, and my grandfather from Calabria played organetto and sang traditional songs. When I moved to Firenze, I had to come to terms with the fact that we wouldn't be able to share what we used to be and do in the south. That's when I took up ballet, which I continued to do until my late teens. 

While tarantella has seen a recent revival, particularly among a younger demographic, there was a time when people almost forgot about these dances. "“Most tarantella were nearly lost", says Rosa, "“and some, we believe, have gone completely. It's got a lot to do with how the southerners were ostracized by the rest of Italy when they started to migrate and bring with them pagan and earthy dances."

Sanacori tarantella band

For the Melbourne School of Tarantella's 10th-anniversary celebrations in March 2022, Rosa converted a local outdoor space into a piazza and danced with people of all backgrounds. Rosa's band, Sanacori, also played a set of traditional songs that explored the different kinds and stages of love.

"“We want to be able to come together in the spirit of we are. We need to dance, we want to dance, and it's important that we do, because when we dance, we can't lie."

Rosa's efforts have helped to preserve tarantella, and with more students joining the school each year, the dances will continue as artforms for generations to come. As one of those students, I could not feel more indebted to Rosa for teaching me all I know about tarantella, and it has been an absolute privilege to perform with her over the years.