In the sun-baked Salento fields, some women are stooped at work, visibly drained. A tarantula bites a young girl’s ankle; instinctively, she runs to seize the tambourines and starts dancing furiously until the venom leaves her body.
This veritable “musical exorcism” is the origin of a tradition that Puglia celebrates every summer – the pizzica, a folk dance in the tarantella family, with variants including the pizzica-tarantata, the pizzica-scherma and the better-known pizzica-pizzica. The term pizzica denotes a typical traditional dance from the Salento, the heel tip of the Italian boot, although it originally belonged to a wider area in the south, corresponding to the whole Puglia region plus eastern Basilicata.
The pizzica, a Dionysian dance
The pizzica comes from the genre of southern-Italian traditional dances that are usually called “tarantellas”. They are all ancient in origin, often bound up with the cult of Dionysus, a god much venerated in southern Italy, especially in the Salento peninsula. In the past, during festivals in his honour, men and women went wild in public, fuelled by wine and these dances.
The pizzica, a dance of the tarantula bite
As time passed, the pizzica evolved and lost its link with the Dionysian festivities, becoming associated instead with the tarantula bite, for which this dance seemed the only cure. Salento has always been an agricultural area, and while they laboured in the fields, the farm workers often risked encounters with various animals, including tarantulas. Maybe it was a tarantula bite, maybe it was the torrid heat, but someone felt unwell and fainted. The legend has it that the traditional remedies could do nothing for the poor unfortunate, who went into a kind of trance. All the victim could do was lurch into a hysterical dance to the rhythm of the traditional Salento tambourine.
The pizzica-pizzica is a dance for a man and a woman, staged to create a frolicsome party occasion. Whatever the setting, the roles are always clearly defined. Whether she dances in a mock courting scenario or in a more playful mood, the woman holds a handkerchief in her hand, originally to invite her partner to dance. The effect is spectacular not just for the movement of the handkerchief but also for the fulsome skirts and foulards, as the women wear their hair down and dance in an upright, mysterious way throughout. The man’s role, meanwhile, is to express virility, strength and masculinity through more decisive, pronounced movements. The woman leads the dance, moving closer to the man and inviting him with her eyes, then moving away suddenly and looking elsewhere.
Now an internationally renowned attraction, the pizzica in summer roves all around the heel of the boot, from Calimera to Carpignano Salentino, Castrignano dei Greci, Corigliano d’Otranto, Cutrofiano, Martano, Martignano, Soleto, Sternatia and Zollino. The tour culminates in Melpignano, usually towards the end of August, when the Orchestra popolare Notte della Taranta accompanies performances from major traditional groups from the Salento and the international scene until deep into the night.