In an alcove on the façade of a building off the main road in the village of Buonopane was a matrix of tiles depicting a performance of La ‘Ndrezzata, an ancient ritual that goes back to before the birth of Christ, and is thought to represent the mythological struggle between Fauns and Nymphs—or the war between the sexes—depending on how you choose to look at it. It consists of an elaborate and complicated dance that is performed on the lunedi dell’ Angelo, Monday of the angel, which is the annual mid-June festival of St. John the Baptist. Male and female dancers are dressed like Arcadian fishermen, in white knee socks, white pantaloons, red vests and sashes, and white santa-like caps with red pom-poms attached.
Men and women arrange themselves in two circles, one within the other, and they rotate in the same direction, and make a clatter as they strike each other’s wooden clubs and swords to the tune of a clarinet and tambourine. A corporal shouts commands.
As they dance faster and faster, the men continue to strike their clubs against the swords of the girls, and the girls fearlessly hit back. The men sing:
ce lo dico a mammita,
ce ho dico a mammita....
I’ll tell your mom,
I’ll tell your mom…
Later the girls sing:
Quanno me cocco ‘a sera
M’bbracce a stu cuscine
e quann’é ‘a matine
sempe penzanno a te,
sempe penzanne a te....
When I go to sleep at night
I hug this pillow,
and when the morning arrives
I’m always thinking of you,
I’m always thinking of you.
I entered what I took to be the dance organization's clubhouse, or headquarters. Behind a desk was a bald man in his sixties, with glasses on the end of his nose, studying Il Golfo, the island’s tabloid newspaper. On the walls hung sepia-toned photos of performers from previous generations. They all stood stiffly at attention, not a smile among them.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” I said.
The oldtimer looked me over, grunted and nodded.
I expected that he’d talk eagerly about his father or grandfather or great grandfather being among the folks in those old photos, but he spoke reluctantly in short sentences.
“I understand La ‘Ndrezzata goes all the way back to the Etruscans.”
“Maybe it does, I don’t know,” he said.
“People come here from all over Europe to see it.”
“Do you participate?”
“When did you start?”
“When I was a boy. My father taught me.”
“So how does this ritual connect with St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the village?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does the dance mean to you personally?”
He stared at me for a moment.
“It’s just a dance,” he said, and then he resumed his reading.