Eight damsels, at the foot of the throne, repeat an obscure dance that never ends.
(Aristide Sartorio, “Sybil” – Dramatic Poem, 1922)
In the Marche the elderly say that Queen Sybil’s fairies originally danced the Saltarello inside their cave at the top of the mountain, wearing wooden clogs made of fig wood and holding sticks. Their motions created sound, primordial music which in turn regenerated the dance in an endless continuum: their clogs beat sonorously and rhythmically on the earth, the sticks in their hands hissed as they split the air and then stopped when they banged them together, producing more high-pitched sounds. Hisses and airy sounds like the Queen’s song.
Therefore according to the myth the Mountain of the Sybil, the so-called “Mountain of the Fairies”, is the place where our traditional dance and music were born in the same moment, generated by a supernatural impulse. All this was created by female entities, fairies, by means of clogs made of fig wood, and the fig plant is the symbol of fertility. The ficus ruminalis comes to mind, the tree under which Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf – the symbol of divine motherhood.
At the source of the Tradition we find the absolute feminine origin, self-impregnating and self-referential feminine power, at peace with itself and in perfect harmony with creation.
Just like what occurred in the Genesis, where the water separated from the earth and the sky, one day on the Mountain of the Fairies the third element – water - was created. Using goatskin, the Fairies built the first cembalo (a frame drum with bells on it), the archetypal musical instrument, the symbol of all that is feminine, of the Mother Goddess, the lunar cycle, of water. The frame drum is the shaman’s instrument par excellence, it is the instrument that allows those who play it to travel to other worlds, other dimensions.
Until a few decades ago, in the Marche countryside the tambourine was still played by the women of the family, often by the eldest, the matriarch who authorised the dance to begin by her playing and singing.
In recent times the frame drum, the feminine/water instrument, is flanked by the diatonic accordion for the music of the Saltarello. The diatonic accordion is a masculine instrument that we can associate with fire. Indeed, fire is the only element that humans are capable of producing; at the same time the diatonic accordion is the fruit of human ingenuity at its best, it was conceived without having any direct or indirect references in nature, therefore through creativity to the nth power.
In the mid nineteenth century the diatonic accordion replaced the other “fiery” instruments which were used at the time when playing the traditional music of the Marche region, the main one being the violin, which according to legend is connected to the devil and the flames of hell.
The diatonic accordion immediately became inseparable with our region; here it was adopted and nursed and grew strong and vigorous – once again in the shade of a ficus ruminalis! That’s right, the tree from Waldum de fico … Castrum Ficardi … Castelfidardo!! Nomen Omen, “the destiny in the name”, in this case more than in any other it is appropriate to say: in the fig tree forest (waldum) regular production began of the instrument which first of all unsettled our traditional music and then unsettled the music of the whole country, which began its political unification with the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in precisely the same period of time, also thanks to battles fought in these same places.
The thumping of fig wood created dance and music; under the aegis of the fig tree the musical instrument par excellence for dancing music was developed – it is perfect for this since, in order to produce sound, it must in turn move, it has to dance! Thanks to the diatonic accordion the mythical dance of the fairies soon became part of the sphere of Man. Man in the sense humans/mortals and males.
Initially it was only the fairies who danced the saltarello and the most men were allowed to do was watch; if they had tried to take part in the dance they would have been “doomed”, that is, they would have flown away and disappeared forever inside the cave.
As I have already written elsewhere, “it is clear that the saltarello, considered in this symbolic and mythical dimension which is still present today in the collective memory of the Marche inhabitants who retain the traditional local culture, cannot be explained as a mere courtship dance.
The saltarello is a dance which is felt, at a very deep level, to be the representation and celebration of Eros, of the magic and power of erotic impulses, not as a mere means of seduction by courting, or a means of obtaining sexual favours from the woman or man you are dancing with. Here the woman officiates, indeed, she is the priestess of this erotic ritual which was once celebrated by females only. The woman, therefore, becomes the true incarnation of Eros. The beautiful fairies of the tales show men the dance and by showing, they teach it, as always happens in traditional culture. They show and teach not only the movements but also the sacredness of the symbolic significance. The spiritual dimension of this indoctrination vanishes when men try to lift the fairies’ skirts and see what appear to be hooves. As soon as they give in to uncontrolled, animal, erotic urges and stop perceiving the sublime, the divine aspect, men project their bestiality onto the fairies and these then become the personification of evil and of all that is malicious: the personification of the “evil” which is in reality within man himself”.
According to Cabalists, women have already accomplished their spiritual journey in the physical world because they have repaid the karmic debt caused by their giving in to the temptation offered by the snake in the Garden of Eden.
his atonement occurred when they did not take part in the building of the Golden Calf, while Moses was on Mount Sinai. At that precise moment women redeemed themselves for all time. From that moment on the feminine principle itself has been waiting to be reunited with the male principle, still enslaved by his ego, the bearer of darkness, war and death.
Fairies are the symbol of this perfect state, this ideal dimension of shared Illumination, of participation in the Light; women who offer themselves as mere objects of male desire do nothing but nourish the darkness of which men are still the bearers.
This latter dimension is the one we find ourselves in today, and it can be detected in every area of our lives and more than ever in those activities which could be superficially considered Traditional: nowadays in the saltarello the woman is an object that functions for the performance of a pantomime of (base) courtship; nowadays women are excluded from any active role in traditional folk music of Marche, even from those roles which were once specifically female (playing the frame drum and singing); in the lyrics sung to the music of the saltarello women are almost exclusively the target for downright verbal obscenities. Aware as I am of all this, I like to find an ideal point of balance, now lost, to relate to, and it can be found in the eras of the Renaissance and Mannerism. A balance between male and female, the sun and the moon, indeed a balance built around the rays of the sun hidden in the moon.
In the words of Olimpo of Sassoferrato, a poet, singer and musician from the Marche in the early sixteenth century, the woman is at the centre of the world, it is around her that dance and music come to life; whether she is a “shepherdess” or “civilized” (a city dweller).
This is the idea I have when I sing, play and dance the saltarello; it is this idea that I try to share at conferences and through what I write; and this is the idea on which I base my work when I try to train “new” traditional dancers during dance workshops.
He who knows how to discover the rays of sun which the belly of the moon keeps alight will make all his journeys perfect. (Friar Elia of Cortona)