Writing my way through the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I’m sharing my thoughts and reflections on a lexicon (vocabulary specific to a certain subject) of unusual, obscure, or simply charming-to-me words. Ludic is defined as “playful, in an aimless way” and that’s my plan for approaching this challenge – keeping my feet on the joy trail and meandering wherever the daily word takes me.
T is for…
Tarantism – the urge to overcome melancholy by dancing; a dancing mania or malady of late medieval Europe.
I’m definitely fascinated by this, and the word itself feels like it came to me riding on one of those cosmic winks I often talk about. Earlier this year, in the depths of winter, I was uncharacteristically melancholy. Talking with a friend, she insisted I needed to dance. She was right – a couple of dancing-around-the-kitchen sessions and my mojo was back. Thank you, Valerie!
Shortly thereafter, I discovered the word tarantism. And while I clearly resonated with the first part of the definition, it was the second that sent me down a warren of rabbit holes, much to my delight.
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Taranto, Italy was affected by a periodic malady characterized by hysterical dancing. It was theorized (along with many other explanations, none of which were ever proven) that the cause was the venomous bite of a European spider known as a tarantula, which is of an entirely different genus than the one we know.
The curious thing is that it was believed the only cure was dancing off the venom, and there developed a complex response in which musicians were called in to play music for the afflicted to dance to, and even sometimes stages were built. There is, of course, all sorts of speculation about what was really happening – from stress-related mass hysteria, to sinners possessed by the devil, and everything in between. But it seems clear from records at the time; the people afflicted seemed to be in serious physical distress and not, in fact, backhandedly urging some giant dance party.
Some folks believe that the Italian folk dance, tarantella, resulted from the mania, but others insist it has nothing to do with tarantism.
Further research shows there were outbreaks of this dancing malady as early as the 11th century in other parts of Europe. These reports were always laced with religious tones, both condemning the afflicted and/or insisting religion aided in its cure.
Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, the dancing malady was not an isolated event and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork.
The piece I found most personally significant and interesting was this – dancing mania was also known as dancing plague, choreomania, St. John’s dance, and St. Vitus Dance.
As a child my sister was diagnosed with St. Vitus Dance, and was quite ill for a while. St. Vitus Dance, also known as Sydenham chorea, is believed to be an autoimmune disorder which can develop following rheumatic fever, or occasionally a streptococcal infection.
Chorea is a movement disorder that causes involuntary, irregular, unpredictable muscle movements, and the disorder can make you look like you’re dancing, or restless, or fidgety. The word chorea comes from the Greek word for dance.
St. Vitus is associated with the disorder because during the dance mania/plague people who were afflicted often visited the chapels of St. Vitus, who was believed to have curative powers. It is also known as Sydenham chorea because Sydenham was the English physician who first explained the disorder in the 1700s.
All this musing about “dance” through the lens of altered states made me think about a fabulous giclée print I have of “Datura Dance” by Kathleen Lolley.
Datura is one of the plants I’m doing a deep study of. It’s a genus of nine species of poisonous flowering plants with blooms that look like trumpets. They all contain toxic and sometimes narcotic or psychoactive alkaloids and have been used as poisons, hallucinogens, and even in love potions across time through many cultures.
I think it might be appropriate to end with the famous quote from Isadora Duncan: “No I can’t explain the dance to you; if I could tell you what it means, there would be no point in dancing it.”
So what do you think? Do you love to dance? Ever indulge in it as a cure for melancholy? Know how to dance the tarantella? Do tell – you know I love to hear.
Very interesting term and history of it. Dancing is something I love to do and it has healing in it for me. It’s a great way to get in shape and have fun at the same time. Used to love to crank up the jams and do housework and dance in between. I still do it just not as often.
My Tull for the day:
Dancing makes housework entirely more palatable. Your Tull retrospective has offered a few that are good fits. Unfortunately, my house hasn’t seen the benefit of them yet. 🙂
That is really fascinating! As soon as I saw the word relating to dancing, I thought of the tarantella. Although, I was thinking it was the tarantino! I do not know how to do it. When my son was in elementary school all the 5th grade classes has world day or something like that. They learned dances and ate foods, and had a mariachi band come (a student’s family had a group). I think he was told the dance had something to do with the spider.
Oh, what a fabulous fun experience for kids! I think I’m going to have to celebrate my own version of World Day. Multiple times – a dance and a dinner experienced from many countries.
I find that movement and free form dance is very soothing; it has always been a good way for me to manage stress. I turn on some catchy music and dance around in my house. I love Isadora Duncan’s quote; so many expressive forms can’t be explained because they’re personal and subjective to the viewer.
Excellent Margaret! It’s one of those go-to techniques that I have to do a better job of remembering in the moment.
Great post! Such a fascinating intermingling of dance as a symptom/cure. I am a social dancer (swing and salsa) — at least I was before the pandemic, because these are couples dances with leader and follower and there’s now way to social distance. I was elated to discover Zumba in a local park early on, and did that for awhile. Now there may be line dancing outdoors on one of NYC’s piers this summer — something to look forward to! Dance definitely lifts the spirit.
Oh, I hope you get to line dance safely this year, Molly! I can envision a pier filled with people, music blasting, and everyone have a fabulous time.
Datura Stramonium is one of the homoeopathic Rx that might be considered to treat chorea… and so indeed is a Rx of homoeopathic potency derived from the poison of Tarantula!
I do like to dance, and I realise that I have not really danced at all for the best part of two years now. Time to change that! Put on the bhangra… YAM xx
Ah, homeopathic wonders! Datura is a magical plant, but who am I kidding – I think they all are?!
And yes, yes, yes – you have a lot of dancing catch up to do. Have fun!
and nowadays we have what they call the five rhythms dance movement or estatic dance as a meditation / journey deeper into ourselves .
I too have danced away melancholy Deborah , sometime just getting the energy moving is the perfect remedy to change our space.
I’m familiar with the five rhythms dancing – it might be time for me to move it from memory back into practice. I think you’re right Sandra, just moving energy can bring welcome shifts. It’s always curious to me how we often forget things we know when we need them most.
Hi Deborah – not having rhythm I’ve never been happy dancing … but I’m fascinated by the Tarantino aspect of your post, as too the St Vitus dance, and then Datura – I had a huge one outside my house in Johannesburg and was aware how poisonous it was. I’m grateful melancholy tends not to be near me! All the best – Hilary
Oh, I bet datura did well in South Africa – and how wonderful you had one. I think there’s lots to be learned and appreciated about those things in nature that require our genuine respect for their power.
Great post: meandering through history, medicine, personal and magical.
I love to dance. Your post reminded me I haven’t danced this month:) Shall fix it soon.
I confess, a number of things have fallen by the wayside this month for me. But I’m glad you’re going to remedy your dance deficiency. Have fun!
I learned a lot of new things today.. I am not sure how being in the field of psychology I never came across the term St. Vitus Dance / Sydenham chorea so far.
Until I came to your blog, I did not believe that quote, “you will never know what you don’t know”
As for me, I love to move awkardly to music when I am alone but it cannot be called dance.
Thank you for stopping by Farida. One of the things I most enjoy about the April challenge is that I really feel like I learn all sorts of new and interesting things during the month.
As for dancing, I like to be a bit more generous in defining my awkward movements to music. I definitely claim it as dancing. My own unique form. 🙂
I do love to dance and don’t do it nearly enough anymore. I need to change that I think. I agree that it can really life your mood.
Great Karen. It’s strange how we let go of, or don’t make a priority, of the things that really delight us. It’s never too late to change that.
I was recently watching the Dickinson TV show, and they did a “tarantula dance”, which cracked me up to end 😀 Fun show
The Multicolored Diary
How fun! I’ve yet to see the show – I’ll have to remedy that.