The Dancing Plague Epidemic of 1518

“Tired arms, sweaty shoes, uncontrollable swings, and mad dancing” – such was the condition of the people in Strasbourg, France. The Dancing Plague first appeared in July 1518 when a woman named Mrs. Frau Troffea jumped into the street and started dancing. Her feet resisted the control of her mind and due to prolonged dancing, she fainted. On gaining consciousness her dance continued.

Just imagine — one of your friends suddenly going off the rails and starts dancing their heads out. In a few days, hundreds were afflicted by the Dancing Plague and joined Frau’s uncontrollable urge of dancing.

A platform was constructed, bands and professional dancers brought in as the city authorities and religious heads estimated more people to join the Dancing Plague. However, people started collapsing due to exhaustion and few even stroked to death. Documentations quote around 400 people being held up by the compulsion of the Dancing Plague. With no particular evidence, the physicians blamed the Dancing Plague on “Hot Blood” and “Demonic Possessions”.

What were the possible reasons behind the Dancing Plague of 1518 at the time?

The best-accepted theory for the Dancing Plague came from John Waller. His research suggested that the victims of the Dancing Plague suffered from a mass psychogenic disorder.

He cited the series of the Dancing Plague as a result of Smallpox and Syphilis profuse the stressors of people in Strasbourg.  He was also in support of the local belief that if St. Vitus, patron saint of epileptics and dance is not pleased, the Dancing Plague will catch hold of the ones who disobey. The documentation of the period between the 10th and 16th centuries witnessed several such maniac dancing events in Europe namely Switzerland, Holland, and Germany.

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American Sociologist Robert Bartholomew pitched his theory that the dancers were serving to a divine entity who were non-followers of the church.

Researchers in the present century document the reason for the Dancing Plague as a result of the consumption of bread made out of rye flour contaminated with ergot i.e., a fungal disease. The Dancing Plague also caused convulsions, hallucinations, and spasms.

How did the Dancing Plague stop?

The elliptical situation had a hold on the area for about 2 months, Only till September wherein the dancers were summoned in the shrine located atop on mountain dedicated to St. Vitus. The bloodied feet of the dancers were adjusted in the red shoes and were led around the wooden figurine of the saint. The memoirs tell that the compulsion of dancing ceased within a week after the prayer and the epidemic came to a strange end as that of its beginning.

Though the Dancing Plaque sounds like folklore, it is not. There is proper documentation present to support the situation of 1518. There are several such epidemics like the laughing epidemic that had spread throughout Tanzania and gripped citizens for over 18 months. Tell us what would you do if such a condition arises again? Do you have the moves to shake on the stage and be the last man standing? I hope that we never have to find out!