Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alessandra Belloni Part 1 - Rhythm is the Cure - The Healing Power of the Tarantella Spider Dance

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.
Carolyn: The image of a spider weaving its web means different things to different people. For some, the meaning is sinister, as in ‘weaving a web of lies’. For others, a web evokes connection, support and communication, as in the internet, which we call the World Wide Web.

The spider and its web have been active symbols in the human mind for thousands of years. The concept of a person trapped in the web of society’s rules, unable to free themselves, has been recognized, contemplated and remedied in different ways throughout the ages using myth, literature, music, song and dance. Many times, these remedies were rituals that allowed the affected person an essential outlet for the expression of their trapped emotions. This ritual provided a limited, protected time during which that person could freely express themselves without restraint. It was understood by all that after the ritual, the person would return to society and follow its rules, until those trapped emotions built up once again, and another freeing ritual was needed.

There is an ancient Southern Italian dance called the Tarantella. This is not the Tarantella we usually think of, a tune we often hear at weddings. Instead, this Tarantella is a music and dance ceremony connected to the mythical bite of the tarantula spider. The musical instruments used in the ceremony are violins, mandolins and most notably, the tambourine or frame drum. The dance is a frenzied, wild, spinning expression of repressed emotion.

A person affected by the mythical bite of the spider is called a tarantata. And the condition caused by the bite is called tarantismo.

Alessandra Belloni has devoted her life to the exploration and rejuvenation of this Tarantella. Alessandra is a world-renowned percussionist whose talents include singing, dancing, composing and arranging. She has published a book called Rhythm is the Cure, Southern Italian Tambourine, complete with an instructional DVD, published by Mel Bay. Alessandra is a REMO Signature Series artist who has designed her own line of tambourines, also called frame drums.

Alessandra, let’s talk about the origins of the myth of the spider and how it connects to repression and ultimately, to release. The Greek myth tells the story of Aracne, a talented princess who challenges a goddess.

Alessandra: It starts with the myth of Aracne and how this young princess was such a skilled weaver of ancient Greece. Italy was part of ancient Greece, called Magna Grecia. And how Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom is very jealous of the young princess being such a skilled weaver and all the nymphs admire her. Athena accepts the challenge to the weaving contest and Aracne wins. Athena gets very angry, destroys the linen and Aracne out of humiliation, hangs herself.

Carolyn: But Athena takes pity on Aracne at this point.

Alessandra: Athena transforms her into a spider.

Carolyn: So Aracne continues to weave forever, as a spider. Now, the myth continues with the nymphs, who so admired Aracne. They are heartbroken by the events and sink into a deep depression and begin committing suicide. The people call upon Athena for relief. Athena tells them that the nymphs have been bitten by the spider, causing the depression, and the only cure is a frenzied dance ritual to expel the poison and heal them.

Alessandra: There’s a lot in that myth of young woman-older woman relation, the jealousy, the competition, the web, how we weave our web. And then this fear of not being accepted and then committing suicide. It spoke to me in many different ways. Now that I’m older, I think it’s the archetype of our subconscious mind so we all connect to spiders in different ways. Some of us love them, and some people don’t and they have arachnophobia!

Carolyn: Alessandra, what introduced you to this myth and its meaning?

Alessandra: Back in 1981-82 I met Glen Velez, the drummer who was my first tambourine student. As a gift he gave me this book that I’d been searching for a long time, and at that time it was out of print, called La Terra Del Rimorso, the Land of Rimorse. To me it’s like a bible for who wants to study this, of the myth of the spider. From the myth of Aracne and how they studied the tarantate in the early 60’s, late 50’s. So it gives you all the history behind this form of madness, malady, ritual that was still popular then in Puglia. I studied that book many, many times, I read it over and over again, I almost memorized the book by now. Ernesto di Martino is the author.

Carolyn: One of the messages of the myth is recognition, compassion and restoration of those suffering from various forms of cultural repression.

Alessandra: In the Greek times, the young girls were repressed by the male dominated society and they were not allowed to express their sexuality. They became afflicted by this. All I know is that they suffered from a malady that came out as an explosion of euphoria. They said they were possessed by the god Dionysus. If you read Euripides Bacchantes, you read there are all these women, the Maenades, running around wild. And they were allowed to do these crazy things, orgiastic rites and more, even devouring men. Incredible scene of the Bacchante, because they were possessed by the god Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and wine.

Carolyn: So, putting this in its cultural context, marriages were arranged so the women often did not marry the men they loved.

Alessandra: Young women not being allowed to be free and express themselves sexually, psychologically, artistically, everything. The myth of Aracne embodies a lot of things. The web is a big thing, it could be anything, but it’s mainly sexual. Dance comes from that. But I think it embodies other things that are part of that. The suffering that caused people to go crazy and sometimes to commit suicide.

Carolyn: So this kind of wild dance ritual, sanctioned by society, acted as a safety valve to calm depression and prevent suicide?

Alessandra: Exactly. And to not be accused of witchcraft.

Carolyn: Because they could have been killed for witchcraft.

Alessandra: That’s why it’s a healing trance dance. Because the women in the trance danced, and healed themselves. And thru the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that’s how the dance evolved. And no one accused them of anything because they were bitten by the tarantula. They were free to express who they were, because they were sick; they suffered from the poison of the spider.

Carolyn: This myth and its remedy have taken various forms over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, during the time of the Black Plague and the Crusades, people suffered from the fear of disease and death.

Alessandra: It goes on into the Middle Ages and the meeting with the Islamic world in the time of the crusades. That’s when we first know that the Tarantella evolved as we know it today, with the spinning. I learned by being part of a Sufi community that we have almost the same elements, Christians and Islams have the same things. Yet, we’re in the crusades right now. We feel that we are at the end of the world and it was the same then.

Carolyn: And certain dances during the Renaissance also have their roots in the Tarantella.

Alessandra: In the Renaissance it was a very popular thing and people dressed like that in the streets to do this dance. Where the people danced like devils and danced to exorcise the fear of death and contra malochhio, against the evil eye. The awkward movements using the fingers in the position of the horns. It’s all based on authentic tradition.

Carolyn: So now we fast-forward to more recent history, and we find that areas of Puglia and Calabria have continued this Tarantella ritual, in honor of the Black Madonna. This brings us back full circle to the work of Ernesto di Martino and his book, Land of Rimorse. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, he studied the tarantate and how their families handled the situation.

Alessandra: The ritual of the tarantate happens, after a person was bitten and they found out it was the tarantula, they went into a state of mind. They couldn’t talk or move or do anything unless the musicians came and played the cure. They started spinning and stomping and doing the spider dance on the floor, in their home for 3 days and 3 nights.

And the shamans, who were the musicians, had to find the right melody. And the tambourine had the biggest part of that. Because the tambourine, being the accents released the body and the body started to move, to free the poison, symbolically speaking. Even though for a long time people did believe it was the poison that did that. But the families did know that it was a disease, that it was not the poison. But the excuse was the poison of the spider that bit them during the hot days that they were working in the fields.

So when they were cured after 3 days and 3 nights in their home, all the tarantate gathered on June 29 in this little church called San Paolo di Galentina in Puglia and went completely crazy in the church, screaming, running, seeing the spider. And after that ritual they would come out of the church, healed, for another year, with no memory of what happened to them.

Carolyn: Alessandra continues this ritual in her healing workshops, called Rhythm is the Cure. Her workshops are offered all over the world, for a day, a weekend or a week.

Alessandra: My lifetime research on the myth of the tarantula and how the women are still suffering from what I think is called the tarantismo, the mental disorder that is normally a form of depression or sometimes suicide mania. I think women today, and men sometimes, still have that syndrome and need to cut free from the web of society. So I think that show will always be part of my mission. How can we help, as artists, the people of today identify their web? How can they cut it thru music and dance?

Carolyn: Alessandra holds a Rhythm is the Cure workshop in a gorgeous villa in Tuscany, Italy for a week every August. She uses Southern Italian folk dances and rituals as a joyous form of music and dance therapy. She teaches drumming and ancient Neapolitan chants used for healing and to honor the Black Madonna. She teaches how to release stress, unblock energy, open your heart and throat chakras and achieve deep relaxation.

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