The Great Dancing Plague

Dancing can be an exhaustive activity at times, and we're not talking about Saturday Night Fever here. In the French city of Strasbourg in 1518, a great dancing plague swept the city, leading to many people literally dancing themselves to death. 

Engraving of European dancing mania

Engraving of European dancing mania

It all started on one fine Summer's day in July, where a woman by the name of Frau Troffea began dancing in the street. Despite the bewilderment of the onlooking crowd, Frau danced up a storm, dancing for several days on end, but expressing no joy herself. As the week drew to its close, over 30 people had joined Frau's dance in the street, and by the end of the month 400 dancers were doing their thing. 

The dancers were not dancing out of happiness or joy, as  they often tried to convey the want to stop, with many displaying signs of anxiety at not being able to stop the uncontrollable dancing.

As the mania was spreading, the local government grew concerned with the dancing hysteria that had swept throughout. The government had a grand plan to stop it all,  thinking that if the revelers danced all day and all night, they would soon dance the fever out of themselves. Although the local physicians initially presumed the mania was of supernatural origin, that notion was quickly dismissed. 

So the government put their grand plan into effect, putting in place designated halls and musicians to keep the dancing going all night long.

It wasn't long before the dancing began to take its toll though, as people began to collapse with exhaustion, with many suffering strokes and heart attacks. Some reports even go as far to say that as many as fifteen people per day were falling ill.

No one could ever really put their finger on what caused the dancing mania.  Some speculated that is was caused by ingesting a psychotropic mould, others blamed it on a heretic cult, but in the end, the most likely cause was a bout of mass hysteria (MPI in modern psychology). 

The dancing en masse eventually waned and ceased over the following month. One historian stated that a modern marathon runner would not have even been able to survive the feverish dancing of 1518.