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1518 – The Dancing Plague

Everyone loves to boogy. You might be thinking, 'No, I don't!', but I've seen you dancing in the kitchen when you thought no-one was watching. It's impossible to lie to me.

What if you couldn't help but dance? Your body does the herky-jerky without your consent or understanding. That's exactly what happened in 1518, in Strasbourg, France. This is the story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, the last official case of dancing mania.

Frau Troffea – Trendsetter

Frau Troffea dancing in the streets of Strasbourg 1518 The Dancing Plague
Change the world, with dance!

Strasbourg was, at the time, a free city under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. Which was neither holy, roman, nor a true empire, at least according to Voltaire.

Frau Troffea didn't wake up on a July morning with the idea to induce a mania in her town that would lead to hundreds of deaths. She stepped out of her house, and was suddenly overcome with the spirit of dance.

She gyrated wildly in the street, drawing cheers and jeers from onlookers. Some clapped, other made fun, but nothing could be done to stop Frau Troffea. She danced until her legs gave out, and after a short rest, got up to dance again.

Her dance continued on like this for 6 days. By the end of the first week, she had enticed 30 others to join her compulsive dance. The dancers danced through injuries. Pulled muscles, sprained ankles, torn ligaments, and severe exhaustion were ignored in the name of dance.

Dancing got us into This

Town leadership was growing concerned. People were really hurting themselves, and each other, out there. Every day, more people joined the crazed mob of dancers. They traipsed over the still twitching bodies of fallen dancers.

Civic leadership met with church elders to formulate a plan. They couldn't just let the madness consume Strasbourg. So they came to the logical conclusion that more dancing would cure the town.

They acted quickly, having a large stage constructed and hiring musicians to play for the dancers, and professional dancers to lead the afflicted. While the music did make the scene less disturbing, it did nothing to stop the dancers. Quite the opposite.

More and more people were consumed by the dancing plague. Soon over 400 of the townsfolk were infected.

The dancing eventually subsided 2 months after it began. According to popular belief, as many as 15 people danced themselves to their deaths every day. Historians argue that there are no accounts of any fatalities from contemporary sources.

What Caused the Dancing Plague?

Several theories have been put forth for the dancing mania that consumed Strasbourg. These theories also take into account that similar occurrences happened all over Europe between the 10th and 16th centuries.

Officials at the time blamed the plague on one of two causes. Demonic possession, because of course the church had the devil card ready to go. The other was overheated blood, which sounds weird to us today, but was the most scientific theory that was around at the time.

Modern scholars suggested Ergot Poisoning as the cause. The hallucinogenic fungus which grows on rye bread can cause intense hallucinations and convulsions. Unfortunately, those convulsions aren't really of the dancing kind, more like a seizure.

Other thinkers proposed that the dancers were heretics. They belonged to cults that worshiped some kind of dancing deity, and their gyrations were simply an attempt at gaining the favor of their dirty, unchristian gods. My guess is that this theory was submitted by members of the Catholic Church who really miss the Inquisition.

The most coherent theory was put forth by the American Medical Historian, John Waller. He blames conversion disorder for the dancing mania. Conversion disorder is the modern name of a condition we used to call hysteria.

Mass hysteria is caused by intense stress on a society, and what could be more stressful than 16th century Strasbourg. Syphilis, Smallpox, and unrelenting famine were all affecting the populace at the time. There was also the belief that neglecting the worship of St. Vitus, patron saint of dancing and epilepsy, could land you a hefty curse.

Belief meets anxiety, and boom, you're dancing your little legs off.



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