Spanish Dance: The Art of Passion
Spanish Dance: The Art of Passion
22 November 2017

The Tarantelles (dances) and the Foustanelles (garments)

The Tarantelles (dances) and the Foustanelles (garments)

Ritual views of the “Pitsika”, traditional dance of Salento, Apoulia, South Italy

 Giorgio di Lecce (Italy)

 “Where the little spider bit you under the edges of your waist-dress”

            These lyrics of a known popular song that we call “pitsika taranta”, are based on written sources already existing in 1600 and on verbal sources given in the 1960’s by E. de Martino and D. Carpitella at the famous book “La terra de rimorso” (Milano, II Saggiatore, 1961).

The object of my article will be the “pitsikes” (traditional “tarantelles” of Salento and of the Greek Salento) and the “foustanelles” (dress, waist-dress) that was used by the women of Apoulia until 1600-1700) as well as a few accessories of the garment like the fan-flag, the zacareddle or colourful ribbons and the moccaluri or kerchief.

The “tarantelles-pitsikes” (le tarantelle-pizziche)

             I will start with the “pitsika” or dance of the small “taranta” [taranta or tarantola, spider species] that many call “tarantella”. As I already had the chance to write, laying down my personal experience, at the publications of 1994 about the “tarantati” [those having been bitten by the spider, therefore those that have been taken over by the spider] from Salento and of 1995 about the dancing ritual at the 29th of June at Galatina, based on a rich bibliography, it is preferable to speak about more than one “pitsika” and not a single dance, common in Apoulia and in South Italy (“La danza della piccolo taranta”, Rome, pub. Sensibili alle foglie, “Il rito della taranta oggi”, Genova).

Especially today one can be present and take part in two forms of traditional dance, at the feasts for the patron saints, at the fairs or the weddings:

  1. a) In the pizzica-scherma, pitsika-swordfight or dance of the knives, danced the night of the 15th of August at Torrepaduli-Ruffano (LE).
  2. b) In the pizzica-pizzica, danced during the summer at various villages of the Lecce county.

We must say from the beginning that these “pitsikes” don’t have a clearly coded form, but are rather “improvised” on subjects and conditions predetermined and recognisable due to the rhythm of the “tamburelli” (rattle-drum), the corresponding songs as well as the jumping steps.

The elderly at Roufano, Koutrofiano and Martiniano show a number of steps that they say they were inspired by the “taranti” or by the spider tarantola that jumps, or by the trampling underfoot so as the animal to be killed or even by the swirling around a woman for flirting purposes… in a variety of personal moves difficult to be classified. But lets examine them, each one separately.

 The “pitsika tarantata” (pizzica tarantata)

Diego Carpitella, while describing a musical dancing exorcism of a tarantata (Maria Di Nardo), points out two phases: The first is down on earth, where she mimics the spider, and the second one is in standing position where a fight takes place so as the “tarantula” to be exterminated. At the document that he realised during the 1960’s and from photographs and later documents, one can observe these and other phases as well.

We must not forget that the dance of the tarantati, that has been studied and determined by many since the 14th century with the name “tarantism”. is not (if we can use this term) a “purpose” but a “mean” in the disposal of the poor habitants of Salento so that they could get away from their misfortune and the personal and social misery that scourged them.

The German doctor J.F. Hecker mentions in his publication of 1838 with a title “Danzimania” that since the Middle Ages until 1600, at least 5 times the population of south Italy was struck by “plague” and epidemics. We must not forget that during the 14th century in northern Europe whole villages were “contaminated” by the dancers of the “dance of St Vito” and the “dance of St Jiovanni”. Afterwards, witnesses and researchers speak about “tarantism” that is observed in the region of Taranta, where it is more widespread the cause of this disease or tarantula-spider. Since then and until today, important personalities of the medical science and the religious circles have intervened in order to contradict the belief that the “lycosa tarentula” is a spider very poisonous and dangerous for the man and that the water of the well of the chapel of St Paul in Galatina (Lecce) has miraculous attributes that cure the tarantati.

It wasn’t the dances, the songs and the drums the medicine against the poison of the “tarantula”, but faith and medical science. I do not have the intention, from where I stand, to place myself for or against these “arbitrary” positions, but I will limit myself just to notice that despite the medicines (the antidote for the bite of the poisonous spider “lactrodectus tredecimus-guttatus” was discovered in 1953) and the “rear” miracles that took place at the feasts of the protector Saints of the tarantati of today, it has remained alive and strong either the fear of the bite (real or symbolic) of a poisonous gender of spider, snake or skorpion, or the need to seek for “pitsika” (dance, song or tambourine) in order to find a solution for their misery.

Of course, only a few have remained today at Salento that dance it today, and they do it “with the doors closed” at their own house or at the chapel of Galatina, but the liberating (or exorcist), purgative (or ecstatic) function of the dance and the sounds of “pitsika tarantata” reaches our days. Therefore, as with any social function, obviously altered and differentiated in way and time, today it has a whole different meaning.

Descriptions from 1400 until today mention and represent jumping and rhythm dances, slow and fast, with swards and knives, with kerchiefs and colourful ribbons, with water or fire, that are all called from 1600 until today, “tarantella” or “pitsika tarantata”.

Even from my own experiences of the last three years, when I played the drum for the tarantati or the attarantati that repeat this dancing ritual for over 20 years, I saw them running, jumping, singing, shouting, rolling around themselves or the others, stamping their feet on the ground or on the walls, laughing and crying, while always keeping the rhythm of “pitsika”, repeating it with menace for hours or even for whole days. I stop here, leaving for some other chance further delving.

  1. The swordfight dance (pitsika of the knives)

             For this pitsika we can refer to a documentary film I shot in 1985 and to an essay that was published at the magazine of popular traditions “Lares” (Florence, Olschki 1992), where I describe the dances I observed the night of the 15th August at Torrepaduli of Ruffano, dated at least one century back and also dance in Kalabria, in Sicily and in Napoletano.

Gramsi himself was present around 1920 at a prison of Kastellamare Di Stampia (Naples) at a “swordfight academy” between various dancers that used spoons held up side down in order to provoke a fight. Today, instead of knives (or spoons), the fingers -the index or the middle- join with a purpose to touch the opponent in order to “fix” him or win him at a dance challenge in front of their social team.

 The pitsika-pitsika

Finally, the dance of joy, of celebration and erotic game, personal or coupled or as a team, is based on a jumping dance (with alternation of feet or with both feet)- where he jumps high or stamps the ground (to chase off the poisonous animal).

The dance can start with an invitation from the partner, who passes the left foot in front of the right one. Then they start to go around, sometimes coming close to and sometimes going away from each other, while the musicians with the tambourines, the hand-organs, the guitars, the mandolins etc. alternate love verses with fast music. It is obvious that many count on the personal ability of the dancer and on the desire, the motive, the joy, depending on the instance: feast, wedding, flirt etc. We can watch that in the documentary shot by the Munich TV of Bavaria in 1992.

  1. The “foustanelles”

As a closing remark I would like to mention a few images and illustrative documentaries that come into the subject of this meeting. At the verses of the “pitsika” in the beginning, the “foustanella” (or “mesofoustano”) is mentioned that is worn by the poor peasant women on top of the first white skirt (or underwear) and that is completed with a “quambiule” or “tarantile”. As it is seen in the paintings of 1600, the Salento woman dances with very plain clothes. Especially that colourful figure represents the Land of Apoulia, according to the view of a Dutch painter of the 16th century that on the gown has depiction of poisonous lizards (or spiders).

Watching some of the popular costumes that were reproduced in colourful oil paintings by two Italian artists, A. Berotti and S. Bantucci in the end of 1700, I would like to remind that, as well as in other regions of Italy, even in the Land of Otranto (Apoulia), the popular costume tends to imitate the clothes of the aristocrats and the wealthy classes of the end of the century. Especially these two artists accomplished the mission that was assigned to them by King Ferdinand the 4th between 1782 and 1797.

Since I am no expert in popular garments, I would only like to point out that the official garment can be worn in personal celebrations or shrines and in family celebrations, weddings and christenings, while the everyday one contain the clothes of the house and the clothes that are for the country or for the lower jobs. But in their social function, it is obvious that these garments belong to the more wealthy levels of the peasants and the workers. The poor have neither of the garments, thus remaining in the margin, even during the celebrations. The “foustanelles”, on the contrary, are as a popular garment able for continuous alterations that are often based on the model of the upper classes.

Closing I would like to leave a few images of the end of the century to roll, as they are mentioned by V.D. Palumbo at “Grecia salentina” (the Greek Salento), on the notes of the “pitsika grika” (pizzica grika) that were recorded by Diego Carpitella in the country of Taranta in 1953.


Oria-mu pisulina ce galanta
kerummeti pu panta
i pai pelonta.
Emmiazzi to garofeddhu sti kianta
puddhai sti primavera
i pai petonta.
Evo se kano ‘ndeka kronu panta
ce ‘ndeka kronu pai
i pai ielonta.
Itela na su po ce na su dizzo
ti piaka pu vasto
mesa so petto

Giorgio di Lecce
Aracne Mediterranea
Via San Rocco
I-73040 Torrepaduli Ruffano