Bound by blood

It is the autumn of 2015 in Calabria, the “toe” of Italy. The place is Polsi; a village clustered around a church said to be built on a 7th-century shrine. It’s famous for its statue of the Madonna, a magnet for pilgrims from around Italy and the world.

At the steps of the church, a crowd is gathered around two men dancing. They move delicately in a circular motion around each other to the beat of fast-paced folk music. The men twist their hips and bounce from one foot to the other with their arms stretched out to form a wide arc.

Later, I will discover that this dance is thought to have originated not far away, in the southern Italian town of Taranto, between the 15th and 17th century. It is the tarantella, symbol of tarantism, an impulse to dance that in centuries past locals believed was caused by the bite of a tarantula spider.

A crowd gathers as people dance the tarantella

People would circle around the victim to play musical instruments in the hope that finding the right beat would magically, hypnotically, cure them. But in the legend, the spider’s victim was always a man or woman of low status, never a lady — never a female aristocrat.

As I watch, another man enters the scene from the right, dressed in light blue jeans and a tight black shirt with white writing across his chest that accentuates his muscular physique. Quickly, he moves to the left and stretches out his hand over the crowd, which parts obediently.

Two men dancing the tarantella

A tall, slim, young woman glides through to the centre of the dance ring. Her straight hair is held back from her finely chiseled face with a thin black headband. Lustrous and dark brown, it reaches almost to her waist. She holds her toned shoulders back, her head high, and gives the crowd a half smile. In a thin-strapped black singlet and body hugging jeans, there is something almost regal about her. It’s obvious she commands respect, and knows it. Stretching her arms, she spins like a ballerina in a jewellery box. The beat gets faster.

Who is she, this woman who can so dominate the scene at an ancient religious festival deep in the Aspromonte Mountains?

You’ll find out in my upcoming article for Meanjin, available on December 15.

Ordinary people dancing the tarantella
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