Grinder of the Month: Alessandra Belloni and the Dance of the Spider
In the 1970s, as a young, rebellious woman, Alessandra Belloni thought she had to leave her home in Rome to find freedom in the rock & roll culture of the United States. Years later, she found herself backpacking solo through the villages of southern Italy, connecting with older Italian villagers, the rapid tempo of their tambourines and the lively movement of dances like the Tarantella. Belloni was invited to be part of the “Musica e Teatro Populare” concert by a group of Italian women who were reviving the old work chants sung by women in the fields. Belloni’s experience that summer was life changing. It connected her to a part of her heritage that she had been unaware of, and later to her own grandfather when he remembered that that he, a villager himself, had been a passionate tambourine player. It turned out that she was naturally adept at large frame drum playing as well and she found the music beautiful and haunting. Enraptured, Belloni was determined to learn as much as she could about this disappearing part of southern Italian culture and share it with the rest of the world. What was intended to be a singular trip around the outskirts of Italy, became the first step of many toward a large, transformative journey for Belloni who would become an award-winning performer, artistic director and spiritual leader sought after around the globe.
In New York, she had studied Commedia dell’Arte with Dario Fo at New York University, acting at HB Studio, and took private voice lessons, but playing the large frame drums and dancing to their songs was an entirely different learning experience all together. The dances required her to become more grounded in her movement and the drumming required a physical strength and stamina totally at odds with contemporary urban living. When I took a couple of frame-drumming lessons with Alessandra, she noted that I picked up the rhythms easily, but it was also apparent that I did not have the upper body strength to hold the drum in the correct position for very long. Belloni notes that the sedentary lives most of us live today make it difficult to connect with the corporeal elements of folk music. The women in Southern Italy were infinitely more robust from working physically all day throughout most of their lives. Even the women much older than she were able to dance and drum away for hours.
She cofounded a music company “I Guilllari Di Piazza” with classical guitarist/composer John La Barbera in New York City in 1979 when they discovered their shared love for international folk music. She made regular trips back to Italy to learn more about the drumming and dancing and soon expanded the company to include other musicians and dancers as well. She realized, however, that because most of the singers in New York City had opera training and most of the dancers were trained in forms like ballet, she had to spend even more time training them so they could adapt to the grounded movements and the “major Neapolitan scale” that depended on deep but fast vibratos.
The company has been very successful with numerous performances each year at many venues around New York City and abroad. In 2012, Belloni made another ambitious move. She wrote and produced a full-length play, Tarentalla—Spider Dance, that narrates the ancient history of the Tarantella and its evolution in Europe throughout the years. Belloni hopes to adapt the show for a larger audience in the future and is struggling with figuring out how to make it more commercial without selling out. She wants the show to be entertaining, of course, but also to keep its spiritual message in tact, along with her own artistic integrity.
An independent scholar as well as a performer, Belloni has extensively studied the history of music through field research in Italy, as well as written scholarship. During one of her trips back to Italy with John La Barbera in Calabria, she met two folk musicians who became her teachers, Nando Citarella and Vittorio De Paolo, who invited her to participate in the tammorriata in honor of Saint Anne, the Mother of Mary, a festival that takes place in and around a Baroque Church every summer. Participants end the festivities by walking and drumming along a dark road at night until they reach the top of Mount Vesuvius. Belloni was shocked to see the sensuous couples’ dances that were performed and the suggestive lyrics of the songs they were moving to during a religious feast.
She soon learned that these earthy songs and their energetic dances were rooted in ancient Mediterranean pagan rituals performed by Goddess cults that predate Christianity. It was fascinating to Belloni that these groups not only revered feminine figures, but that they encouraged sensuality as a necessary part of spirituality. Belloni also discovered that there were various churches dedicated to variations of the “Black Madonna” around the region, realizing that though the Catholic Church tried to suppress most of these practices over the years, vestiges of them continued to flourish under different auspices within the Church.
As she continued to travel around the world, she found different cultural variations of “dark, mother” worship that incorporated drumming and ecstatic dance as paths to rebirth. Belloni was surprised and delighted to see the commonality with not just other European and African traditions, but Native American ones from the North and South as well. As Alessandra Belloni became a kind of cultural Ambassador for Southern Italian Folk music, lecturing, performing and teaching the esoteric custom, she was also invited to perform at other cultural festivals in a similar manner. Though she discovered a long history of women drummers, she realized that in more recent times, men have taken over the drumming at these events. She often finds herself as the only woman percussionist at many events, a reality she hopes she can change. She is in search of her own protégée to carry on the practice with her. She believes that it is something innate within some, a kind of calling more than a skill.
There have been promising developments along the way—the Tarantella has a renewed popularity among young people in Italy, who once shunned it for being old-fashioned peasant music. Alessandra began winning many honors and awards, produced original CD’s of her singing and drumming, designed her own set of large frame drums and booked performances and workshops all over the world. She has been the artist in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for many years, putting on productions such as the “Alessandra Belloni and the Daughters of Cybele”. This show is composed of an all women ensemble that carries on the tradition of the ancient Roman priestess drummers in honor of the earth Goddess Cybele and others like her who are often left in the footnotes of history books. She also hosts regular workshops for women on dancing and drumming, including an annual weeklong spiritual retreat to Tuscanny. She has begun to become more explicit about her belief in the mystical aspects of Taranetella trance. Her recent efforts to help a woman recover from childhood sexual abuse became the focus of an upcoming documentary that explores the historical and contemporary manifestations of the Tarantella.
He work was also featured on CNN’s World Beat and a National Geographic documentary called, Spider Sex.
Alessandra is not just a brilliant musical virtuoso, but a powerful contemporary voice for the power that music possesses. Years ago, Alessandra Belloni found freedom in the euphonious beauty of the villagers’ songs, the healing powers of the ecstatic rhythmic dances that accompanied them and their transcultural implications for sensuality and expression.Today she hopes that men and women alike will discover the beauty and strength of the Tarantella and overcome the metaphorical spider bite that holds us back from living more fully.
Her next show at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on October 18th. Information on her many upcoming performances and workshops can be found on her site.