When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a tarantula. After a few years, they decided to downsize the number of strange pets they had (including but not limited to a turtle, a salamander, an iguana, several chickens, and a whole aviary of doves). But did they sell the tarantula back to the pet store? No. They drove up into the mountains surrounding Yosemite and released it near the Merced River. Now, I’m not much of a spider person to begin with, so releasing one large enough to eat small birds (or, for all I knew, little girls) for breakfast in the mountains of Northern California struck me as a singularly bad idea. My only reassurance was that – at least to my knowledge – tarantulas aren’t native to Northern California. The same is not true of Puglia.
A Different Kind of Spider
Using the word tarantula in this case might be slightly misleading as the region of Puglia, Italy has a proliferation of what the locals call tarantule (a name which originates from the province of Taranto), but they’re actually a kind of oversized wolf spider, not what the rest of the world thinks of as tarantulas. In either case, they’re not really all that dangerous to people, although the Puglians seem to have missed that memo.
The Legendary Bite
See, way back in the day – we’re talkin’ B.C.E. – the bite of la tarantula was believed to be incredibly dangerous. There’s some contention about whether or not it was originally considered a cure or a symptom, but all accounts seem to agree that the victims of the tarantula would dance. That’s right. Dance or die, friends! The dancing that derived from this bite became generically known as la tarantella and it is accompanied by a specific rhythm, usually beat out on the tambourine. During my stay in Lecce, I was introduced to the charm of the tarantella, or as they call it in the province of Salento, la pizzica. Literally translated, it means “the bite”.
I thought this dance would have died off along with the notion that you can exorcise poison from your body by dancing, or at the very least remain popular only among elderly folks in rural areas. My image of the standard pizzica enthusiast looked something like this: A comfortably plump, leathery woman is dishing pasta out to her family around a weathered farm table. Her granddaughter turns up the radio, blaring some new American hit single. “Bah,” the old woman says with contempt, “you call this music? I remember when music meant something! When it stirred a fire in your soul!” A misty look comes into her eye. “Did I ever tell you how your nonno and I met? I was dancing la pizzica in the piazza-” Her granddaughter interrupts, “Basta con la pizzica, Nonna! We know…” And the family chuckles good-naturedly over Nonna’s sentimentality. [End scene.]
But in truth, I could not have been more wrong.
A friend and I were invited to a free concert one night, put on by a local band. We decided to go as a spur of the moment decision, arriving after they finished their set list. The chairs had been pushed to the sides of the room and the audience, most of whom were our age or a little bit older, were all on their feet. The band had put away their mike stands and guitars and were sitting on the edge of the stage, with a tambourine and an honest-to-God accordion, playing that ancient tune, la pizzica. The female vocalist was whirling and stomping in rhythm on the stage, her red scarf and skirt whipping in her wake and everyone was stomping and dancing along.
There certainly weren’t any tarantulas in evidence at the concert – of either kind – but the energy was infectious. Suddenly, I understood the legendary frenzy of la pizzica. This was no little old lady reminiscing about the past, this was a heaving body of young people living out their cultural heritage with unironic abandon. I wanted to dance with them, even though I had no idea what the steps to the dance were. I wanted to share that feverish joy with them. I should have checked myself for spider bites because I was definitely bitten by something. Maybe it was a tarantula – if tarantula venom makes you fall in love with Salento and never want to leave.