Vittorio Piovani is a barber in Traversetolo, a village in central Italy. Every Sunday, he puts on a smart suit, shines his shoes, curls his long mustache and goes dancing at a club in a nearby town, like many other weekend clubbers. Except Piovani is a 75-year-old grandfather of three, living for a scene that gives him a deep-rooted sense of community and belonging.
Piovani is an avid fan of liscio, an Italian music genre and dance scene, with dedicated venues called bale, and a fandom that is usually over 50 (most often over 65). In its own way, it’s a glamorous, wild and counter-cultural corner of European clubbing. The music is effervescent – with lots of accordion – and the aesthetic is unequivocal: the band members wear satin dresses and bell bottom suits, with lots of shiny fabric and sequins; customers dress as if attending a wedding. “Liscio has it all: a bit of waltz, a bit of polka, a bit of tango and a bit of slow-dance,” Piovani told insider Redas.
Decades ago the liscio dominated central Italy, particularly the Emilia-Romagna region, but it has entered a slow decline and now some fear Covid has put the final nail in the coffin . Dance halls were closed, on and off, for almost two years, before being allowed to fully reopen when Italy lifted its state of emergency laws this spring. Some of them had closed for good; others have reopened, but changed genres.
When I visited on a Sunday afternoon, Redas was full and about 150 people lined up before the venue was even open. “We’re here – mostly older people,” says Ornella, a retired employee in her 60s. She has been passionate about liscio since she was young, when the local communist party held summer festivals that included liscio dances. Claudia, 69, a cook, comes twice a week, Thursday evening and Sunday, because “ballroom dancing is good for your health and takes away my melancholy”.
Many people from Redas have a special relationship with the Lucchi-Venturi orchestra, which is playing tonight: “Of course we also hear other orchestras, but this one is special for us, it’s as if there was no distance between the musicians and the audience,” says Letizia, who follows the orchestra around Italy with her husband, Massimo. When the band celebrated their 25th anniversary, just before the pandemic hit, the couple attended a three-day dance party at a Lake Como hotel.
The orchestra’s namesake and accordionist, Barbara Lucchi, is a celebrity – in the 1980s she was a frequent guest on television. With her husband, Massimo Venturi, also an accordionist, she leads a group of eight members, for the moment reduced to four. By the 1990s, her orchestra was playing 300 concerts a year, which had fallen to around 130 before Covid hit: “It was a complete disaster, during and after the pandemic,” she says. “Liscio’s artists have been hit hardest.”
Granted, all live music has been impacted by the lockdowns and restrictions, but liscio has suffered particularly as its audiences have been more vulnerable to the virus and more cautious about returning. “We had a lot of losses; members of our audience have died,” says Lucchi. “Even now, not everyone wants to come back, and those who do dance less often.” In addition, the liscio concerns dancing as a couple and is incompatible with social distancing.
Liscio, despised by mainstream Italian culture because it is seen as provincial, downmarket and far too campy, has a strong local and working-class dimension. Its roots go back to peasant dance fairs at the dawn of the 20th century, when Carlo Brighi, a violinist who played with Arturo Toscanini, adapted Central European dances, such as the waltz, polka and mazurka, to an Italian taste. But the genre as it is known today was born in the aftermath of World War II, when violinist and composer Secondo Casadei added modern elements such as saxophone, drums and singers, and became a star. national. His 1950s hit Romagna mia is still a classic.
Liscio was the only dance originating in Italy that survived the importation of American genres, such as swing and boogie-woogie, says music critic Giulia Cavaliere. Its success, she explains, was in its romantic appeal: “It’s dance and erotica. The bale were places where women dressed to attract a mate, and where dancing was the precursor to a kiss. But there is also an element of class redemption: “During the whole week you are a farmer or a factory worker, but on the weekends you dress up, and for two days you have a different social role.”
Liscio boomed again in the 1960s and 1970s, with orchestras such as Vera Romagna, Vittorio Borghesi and Castellina e Pasi touring extensively. The star of that era was Raoul Casadei, Secondo’s nephew, who died aged 83 last year. Remembered as “il re del Liscio”, Casadei was an icon of the 70s, even beyond liscio circles, with his concerts broadcast on television, and a household name so powerful that other orchestras took the name Casadei randomly to trick the audience into thinking there was some sort of connection.
But since the 1990s, liscio has undergone a steady, albeit slow, decline, too distinct to renew itself without losing its aficionados, but perceived as outdated by young Italians. “At the time the clubs were always full and many orchestras could find good work. Now a big crowd only comes if big names are playing,” says Venturi. “Before, it was a good job, even if you played in a small orchestra, but that’s not the case anymore.” The economic crisis has prompted some orchestras to cut costs, even resorting to karaoke backing tracks, while others are simply turning to more profitable genres like Latin American dance.
“Liscio becomes less quality, more repetitive”, laments Moreno Conficconi, clarinetist, singer and arranger who recently founded, with singer Mauro Ferrara and jazzman Mirco Mariani, a musical project called Extraliscio aimed at modernizing the style, cheerfully contaminating it with punk and electronics.
For liscio fans, Conficconi is a legend: he started playing in 1972 and served as conductor for Raoul Casadei, who gave him the nickname “il biondo”, by which he is still called today. today (even though he’s never been blonde) . But his colleagues on the Extraliscio team come from different backgrounds and – given Liscio’s poor cultural reputation – they raised their eyebrows. Mariani says that when other jazz musicians learned that he was doing a liscio project, “they were so surprised that they thought I must be having an affair with a liscio girl. For them, this n was only second-class music”.
Extraliscio now enjoys a certain prestige and has been invited to San Remo, the most prestigious music festival in Italy, but Cavaliere, the critic, doubts that this prestige extends to the whole genre and claims that his decline has deep roots. “Liscio revolved around small communities that gathered in squares and balebut today, young people do not have this link with their micro-community – they want to detach themselves from it.
Conficconi says Covid acted ‘like a guillotine’, facing hundreds of orchestras, and when clubs were finally able to reopen they didn’t get the audience they were hoping for, while Venturi says Liscio will end by dying: “You did not” find any young person in a balera; the world changes. But Conficconi says hope is not lost: “It’s music that brings people together; people found love dancing liscio. It cannot just disappear.
Back in Redas, Lucchi announces: “Now we take on the polka challenge!” The crowd erupts in cheers: they dance, chat and drink for hours, always having fun.