Celest P. DiPietropaolo

This paper is presented to aid italian-americans in their search for their roots in italian music and dance. It is not intended to be a rigorous proof of what is traditional and what is not. Its purpose is to foster an awareness of the problem, invoke a discussion of it, and provide a common starting point.

I have attached several definitions from Webster's Dictionary and a list of English and Italian words describing dance along with brief examples.

According to Webster's Dictionary, the definition of
folk is:

originated or widely used among the common people, as distinguished from the academic, the cosmopolitan, the modern and professional, or the sophisticated.

Also, from Webster's Dictionary, folk arts (folk song, folk dance, etc.) are:

the traditional, typically anonymous arts of the people that are expressions of community life.

If we are surprised that the words folk and traditional are nearly synonymous, consider their usage. Words like love, nice, authentic, and folk have been so over-used that their usages are nearly always ambiguous. For example, we may "love" almost anything—music, pizza, God, mother, sunsets, truth, clever people, etc. We also may consider anything "authentic". Even a counterfeit $20 bill is authentic. If we present the $20 bill as counterfeit, we have authenticated that the $20 bill is phony! If we say that the phony $20 bill does not really represent $20, we would be better understood. Words like love, nice, authentic, folk, etc., have been used in so many different ways, that we often need to explain more clearly how we are using them. In the case of a traditional dance, we need to say what the dance represents and then authenticate that representation as true.

The average second, third, or fourth generation italian-american is finding it extremely difficult in attempting to rediscover his roots, heritage, tradition, etc. What he sees is a view vastly distorted by the american media of what is traditionally italian. When someone tells him "that's not italian" he decides to go to Italy to see for himself. What he sees there falls into two categories: that which he immediately rejects as not being italian and that which reconfirms his original ideas of being italian. An example of the first category occurs, when he sees pizzas that don't have at least a pound of mozzarella on them. An example of the second category is the americanization of nearly every part of italian traditional music.

The rich traditional music of the regions of Italy that ethnomusicologists such as Diego Carpitella, Roberto Leydi, Alan Lomax, and their students have desperately attempted to record and document is being literally buried under the oppressive weight of commercialized and americanized music influencing every traditional art. While it is true that traditional music is evolutionary, we cannot survive its mass destruction by television, americanization, and tourism. Anna Chairetakis has been very fortunate to have documented whatever traditional italian regional music still exists in this country before it is lost to the "folkloric" institutions approved of by american audiences in the name of commercial success.

For those of us with the passion for rediscovering or preserving our italian cultural heritage, we no longer need to desperately embrace those songs, dances, folk dress, etc., imposed on us by those who cannot authenticate them as representing our heritage. We now have the ability to identify traditional music and the resources to authenticate it. How do we recognize a traditional dance? First of all, if it does not have simple and repetitive choreography, it probably isn't traditional. The working class in Italy did not have time to learn complex dances. Complexity in traditional dances comes from the improvisational ability of the dancers who are the “dance poets” of their respective communities. Traditional music, being a means of communication, is subject to the same analyses as language. It is conventional, collective, and has dialects! To authenticate a dance, we need to say first what it represents. That is, we have to answer the following questions:

Below is a table answering these questions for four traditional italian dances. This is not meant to be a sufficient list of questions. But each question is a necessary one. As in the past, there will be dances, parts of dances, and styles of dance which we accidentally accept as traditional. We need to take pride in who we are, and admit when we have misrepresented the tradition.


WHICH AREA OF DANCE? Alpine/PreAlpine Sardinian Area of Saltarello Area of Tarantella
WHERE DANCED? Val Savena, Bologna Provincia di Nuoro Provincia di Teramo Montemarano, Avellino
WHO DANCES? Mixed couples men and women, together or separate mixed and/or unmixed couples small groups of men and women, or procession of masked individuals
HOW DANCED? Couples Circle/Line Couple/Circle Circle/Procession
WHY DANCED? Social Social Social
WHEN DANCED? Dances, holidays, weddings Festivals, after church on Sunday Family affairs, dances, holidays Carnevale
WHAT INSTRUMENTS? Accordion, guitar, clarinet, violin, viola, tuba, voice Organetto, male voice Organetto, guitar, tamburello, voice Organetto, accordion, clarinet, percussion
SOURCE?  P. Staro  F. Giannitasio  G. Gala (various sources)


BALLROOM modern dances like the waltz, tango, foxtrot, samba, etc. BALLO LISCIO modern dances like the waltz, tango, foxtrot, etc.
FOLKLORISTIC folk-like, usually groups performing choreographed dances FOLCLORISTICO folk-like, usually groups performing choreographed dances
FOLK community dances passed down from generation to generation FOLK ballroom dances such as polkas, waltzes, foxtrots, etc.
TRADITIONAL community dances passed down from generation to generation TRADIZIONALE community dances passed down from generation to generation
POPULAR modern dances like jitterbug, jazz, or rock and roll POPOLARE community dances passed down from generation to generation

Traditional Music

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Last revised:5 February 2011
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