Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Baby Doll Dance

Mt. Carmel Festival – Lowellville, OH – Baby Doll Dance 7.12.17 uploaded to YouTube by PaOrgRecChaos

After a year of COVID restrictions, the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival in Lowellville is celebrating its 126th year July 14-17, 2021. Like every festival, there are all the great fair foods, rides, and games, including bocce tournaments each evening and a 50/50 raffle. The Mount Carmel Society Facebook page is probably the best source of information about events.

What makes the festival unique is the Baby Doll Dance which occurs each night of the festival. Around 10:30 pm each night a giant baby doll appears. The fire department keeps the crowd back. The doll has a red, white, and green dress, the colors of Italy, a papier mache’ head covered with a babushka, and long arms sticking straight out, loaded with fireworks. The doll starts dancing and twirling as the fireworks are ignited and start firing. Rockets also fire out of the head. You can’t dance without music. The Mt Carmel Society Band plays “Il Bersagliere” as the baby doll dances and fireworks ignite.

So who is behind, or perhaps it would be better to say, under that baby doll? For the past forty years, Frank Speziale has been the man beneath the doll. According to a 2018 AP story, Speziale’s uncle built the costume when he was a kid. From childhood, he had hoped to dance beneath the doll, built by his uncle. Forty years ago he got his wish. It almost didn’t happen. When his uncle passed, they were going to destroy the costume, but his grandfather stood up for him, and insisted that he would take over.

But where did this tradition come from? I understand it goes back to thirteenth century Italy where villages would burn a papier mache’ baby doll each year to cleanse the village of and ward off any evil spirits. Let’s hope this year’s dance wards off the virus for all the people in Lowellville!

There was only one other place I could find that has a Baby Doll Dance, the San Rocco Festival in Aliquippa, PA, but the description of its significance is different, it only occurs one night, and it hasn’t been going as long as Lowellville’s so this seems to be another unique Mahoning Valley tradition. I wish I could be there. I’ve never seen the dance and I know I would love the food. Another year, perhaps. But to all of those celebrating, Buona Festa!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

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