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Allegro preserves Italian dance traditions

Italy’s 20 regions don’t all move to the same beat.

Just as visitors will discover culinary differences traveling the country, the folk dances of Italy also change with the geography. The tarantella, probably the most familiar Italian dance, is not common in many regions.

“Dances from the north have more of a French, Swiss influence,” said Anna Harsh, founder of the Allegro Dance Company from Wheeling, W.Va. “In the southern regions, the dances get stronger. It feels heavier. The knees are more bent. It’s more challenging for the men, more fantastical movements to do. In the north, it’s almost ballroom dancing or square dancing.”

The Allegro Dance Company will share some of the different dances when it makes its local debut with performances at 5:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Warren Italian-American Heritage Festival at Courthouse Square.

Harsh said the dance company grew out of her college thesis project based on dance and culture learned through dance.

She did a couple of performances in conjunction with her thesis and kept getting requests for more.

“I saw there was a true need to perform these dances because they will disappear if we don’t,” she said.

Harsh’s goal is to document the dance traditions of all 20 regions. She’s more than halfway there, but it’s an expensive process, traveling to Italy for research, finding and purchasing the music and creating the costumes needed for the different dances. One of the ways she pays for that research is through Allegro’s live performances.

This year’s production is called “Le Stagioni,” which translates to the seasons. It focuses on such regions as Calabria and Campania, and Harsh said many immigrants from those regions settled in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“We focus on those regions, highlighting some of their ancestry,” she said. “Then we bring audiences to the present day. Italy’s music today is a fusion of classic music with rap or hip hop. Many of the folk bands now in Italy are a fusion of a Latin beat or R&B style with underscoring of folk dance tempos.

“We show Italy’s past and history but also the present day.”

Allegro fuses Harsh’s twin passions. She has loved dance since she was a child, but she also is a second-generation Italian-American whose grandparents came to the United States from Italy a century ago. And the arts are in her blood as well. Harsh has traced her family tree back 500 years, and it is filled with dancers, musicians and artists.

The Allegro troupe has 12 dancers, although the full group will not be in Warren this weekend. It will perform in four states this summer.

The group also has produced a documentary, “La Danza — Bridging Time Through Dance,” which has been screened at New York’s Italian American Museum and Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center.

Organizers of the Warren festival learned about Allegro after Harsh sent them information about the troupe.

“I always send out information to festivals we haven’t been to so we can share these dances,” she said. “Part of our mission is to share these dances, and many festivals aren’t able to have dancers. It’s dying out. We have to keep networking to keep this in front of audiences.”

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