From the 7th to the 17th Century, mainland Europe was home to a peculiar and occasionally fatal condition, dancing mania. It was no disease, no bacteria, no virus. A particularly human condition, a social phenomenon. There are a few known cases, spread widely. It affected thousands of individuals, how and why this happened, unknown.
It really got moving in 1374, the first major outbreak occurred in Aachen, Germany. After that it spread around Europe. The first step of the dancing plague was often an individual. France, 1518, a woman called Frau Troffea took to the warm July air and danced the streets of Strasbourg. This fervent flailing went on for six days, by the end of that 34 other dancers were going toe-to-toe with the fever.
The numbers swelled, as they normally do. By the end of the month there were some 400 dancers on the streets. In the 1518 epidemic local physicians concluded the whole case was the result of ‘hot blood.’ The council even stepped in and attempted to alleviate the condition. The solution to dancing, was more dancing.
A wooden stage was constructed and two guildhalls opened. They believed recovery could only come through dancing from dawn to next dawn. They even paid for music to be played, as in other cases where music was played, this idea backfired, even more locals began to join. It became the subject of much speculation and even the subject of sermons at the time.
The plague stopped, when the dancers did. Some recovered, many collapsed. For the rest, their blood vessels popped while arms were locked, fatalities occurred. Stroke, heart attack and simple death by exhaustion were what finished them off.
Incidents were many, in 1237 tens of children leapt and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt. This merry migration mystified the residents of both towns and gave rise to the tales of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In 1428 a German Monk danced himself to death and there also arose some periodic cases of the dancing frenzy. Gregor Horst, a 17th Century professor of medicine recorded the following:
Several women who annually visit the chapel of St. Vitus in Drefelhausen… dance madly all day and all night until they collapse in ecstasy. In this way they come to themselves again and feel little or nothing until the next May, when they are again… forced around St. Vitus’ Day to betake themselves to that place… one of these women is said to have danced every year for the past twenty years, another for a full thirty-two.
As well as affecting people, it too made an impression on the places in which it occurred. In 1278 a group of 200 people were taken by the condition and made merry atop a bridge across the river Meuse. The bridge, like some dancers, collapsed.
This condition is much worse than it first seems now though, when dancing, profound changes would come over the dancers. The dancers certainly entered some peculiar state of unconsciousness and lost control of themselves. The groups performed such dastardly acts as making ‘obscene gestures,’ parading around naked and some even engaged in sexual intercourse. They hopped, howled, cried and laughed. So vigorous were their movements that many broke their ribs and subsequently died.
Anyone watching the dance had to dance, if not the dancers would attack them. An additional and peculiar caveat was the colour red, some lost the ability to perceived it at all whilst other reacted violently. They also despised pointed shoes, for reasons unknown. Dancers would experience visions and eventually collapse, some of exhaustion and other collapse in ecstasy.
This condition stopped abruptly in the mid 17th Century, much to the relief of Europe where the condition was treated in the same way as the black death, isolation and exorcism. This was not quite the death of the dancing diseases. In Italy and other parts of southern Europe was a second form of devilish disco, tarantism. In this case though, dancing was the remedy.
When bitten by a poisonous spider, the only cure was dance. In a bid to separate the poison from the blood those bitten would dance the tarantella. In many cases people died without accompanying music, with music others too danced, either caught up in the frenzy or believing that old bites might be activated.
Many went further in a bid to cure themselves, such odious tasks as drinking copious amounts of wine, having pretend sword fights with vines and leaping into the sea. Oddly enough this dancing and leaping into the sea only occurred during the summer months. It had many hallmarks of dancing mania and there were deaths from tarantism.The actual cause is unknown, but it certainly wasn’t spiders. In light of the drinking and leaping into the sea one might entertain the notion that a spider bite was just an excuse.
The tarantella is still danced, but it is no longer a contagious ‘cure’. Tarantism last occurred in 1959, in Italy. There are no more deadly dances.