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.