I just returned from a weekend workshop with Alessandra Belloni. The workshop was a variation of her “Rhythm is the Cure - Healing Dance & Drum Workshop”. Alessandra describes the workshop as, “In this workshop featuring Southern Italian folk dances and rituals we will learn chants used to invoke the healing power of the sun and moon, as well as a repertoire of therapeutic dances, accompanied by the beat of Frame drums and tambourines. Alessandra presents these unique dance movements which trace their roots from Southern Italy back to ancient Greece, with connections to Iran, Egypt and Andalusia, as well as to the traditions of the Gypsies who traveled from Rajasthan through North Africa, Morocco and Spain to Sicily and Calabria.”
My reason for talking this workshop was to be exposed to (and hopefully learn a bit of) the traditional drumming and chanting that is native to Southern Italy and Sicily. For me, the dancing was an added bonus. I wanted to learn about the Italian/Sicilian traditions of using rhythm, chant, and dance so I could incorporate some of the techniques into my own practice of Sicilian-American Stregheria.
From the outside, as an observer, one can see that this artistry has its roots in what is commonly referred to as the “folk customs and celebration of the ancient Italic peoples and their descendants. However, from the perspective of the full participant who can approach this system with mindfulness and respect, a system of spiritual expression and healing is revealed. This goes well beyond folk customs. It becomes no less than a powerful spiritual devotion, a system of inducing trance states, and a door to the realms of ecstatic (Dionysian) dance, chant, and rhythm that can lead to healing and triggering cathartic events.
The weekend workshop was held in an ideal setting. We stayed in a private mansion on 44 acres of gorgeous land. We had a wonderful and gracious host (Arden) and an amazing cook (Heidi). Other than them, we had the entire grounds to ourselves.
Over the course of the weekend, Alessandra shared with us several basic drumming techniques using a type of Italian tambourine/drum (tamburello/tammora/tambourine). The techniques were strung together into specific patterns designed to enliven the spirit and body and to align the participants with our goals.
Coupled with that, we also learned some traditional rhythmic chants and combined them with the drumming to add to our devotional practice. Rhythm is the Cure – rhythm is the key.
Throughout the weekend we were also learn the basics of four traditional dances. They were the Tammorriata, the Pizzica Tarantata, the Tarantella de’ 600, and the Ritmo e Danza e di San Rocco or Spinning Dance. A person watching would immediately see the relation to the “Italian Wedding Dance” that is often seen at Italian-American festivals. These dances, however, are far more than simple folk dances or elaborate step dances that are performed at Italian-American community celebrations. Watching Alessandra perform these steps shows a clear spiritual essence to them and you KNOW that the dance is something that can bring one closer to the Divine.
The combination of rhythmic drumming, chanting, and drumming in this ancient style is powerful for all participants regardless of which role is performed. A person usually takes one of the roles: drummer, singer/chanter, or dancer. With practice, some folks may combine the drumming and chanting but the dancers do not normally also drum or chant at the same time. Although, Alessandra is so accomplished that she can seemingly effortlessly do all three at once!
Frankly, I never knew what hard work drumming (and chanting and dancing!) were until I took this workshop. It’s hard. Also, it’s so very worth it.
I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the workshop. It has given me some new tools to add to my own practice and Path. I had a wonderful time meeting new friends, being in a totally supportive environment, and expanding my understanding of the practices of my ancestors.
If you ever get the chance to see Alessandra Belloni, do so. If you ever get the chance to study with her, do whatever it takes. You won’t regret it. I don’t.
Who is Alessandra Belloni? An excerpt from her website (http://www.alessandrabelloni.com/) says: “Alessandra Belloni is the Artistic Director, Founder and Lead Performer of "I GIULLARI DI PIAZZA", an Italian Music, Theatre and Dance Ensemble who is Artists-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St.John the Divine in New York City. She is also the designer of a line of signature series Italian tambourines made by Remo, and of special brushes for tambourine with Pro- Mark. She is the only woman in the U.S. and in Italy who specializes in traditional Southern Italian folk dances and percussion that she learned from the old people in the fields.”
TAMMORRIATA - This elegant and sensual dance from Naples is performed by couples playing castanets to the rhythm of the large drum, called the Tammorra. The dance movements have a strong Spanish and Middle Eastern flourish, with many recognizable movements of the Flamenco and Belly Dance traditions. These movements are set to the beat of African 4/4 rhythms. The Tammorriata is based upon an improvisational style of drumming and singing usually enacted during the summer rituals in honor of the ancient Earth Goddess Cybele, and later, the Black Madonna.
THE PIZZICA TARANTATA – This erotic and dynamic ritual dance originated as a cure for the mythical bite of the Tarantula, a condition causing a mental disease called tarantismo, which afflicted mainly women (tarantate) in Southern Italy. The wild rhythm of the Pizzica, played on medium size tambourines and accompanied by dance was performed as an exorcism ritual which produced a trance-like state beneficial for the healing of many disorders and imbalances. As part of a re-enactment of this healing ritual, Alessandra will lead the participants in a circle dance accompanied by her magic tambourine 6/8 rhythm and singing. During the ritual each student will learn the steps of the Pizzica, which means “ bite,” building up to a culmination where each student will enter the circle and lay down upon a white sheet, surrounded by red ribbons, and emulate "Spider" like movements on the ground, releasing stress and blockages of sexual energy, as well as opening the heart and throat chakras. The dance comes to completion as each participant dances their way out of an imaginary “Spider Web.”
TARANTELLA DE’ 600 – This is a Renaissance folk dance which is done in pairs which is very popular in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean. It contains both fast, energetic steps and combined arm and leg movements which improve coordination. This invigorating dance had been called by Alessandra’s students ‘Italian Aerobics”.
RITMO E DANZA DI SAN ROCCO or SPINNING DANCE – This dance originating in Calabria during the Middle Ages evokes the elegant and meditative movements of the Whirling Dervish ceremonies of the Sufis. This dance was used during the time of the plague to heal people and as a release from overpowering fears of death. Due to the trance-inducing movements and incessant spinning many people enter ecstatic states during this dance. The session ends with a meditation utilizing a chant to the Sun, Jesce Sole, in the Lydian scale. The calming and lilting harmonies of this chant combined with the ocean drum guides students into complete relaxation. Participants emerge feeling light and joyful after this healing journey through sound and dance.