Dancing Plague: Epidemic Disease where 400 People Dance on the Street till Death
Dance is one of the earliest forms of expression and is often believed to help release one’s emotional stress. While every dancer throughout history will confirm this, a specific group of people from France are examples that dancing did not lead to the release of tension, and quite ironically stress led to the release of their dance.
The dancing plague, also known as the dance epidemic of dancing mania of 1518 was a strange phenomenon which yet, after 5 centuries has no tangible reason and concrete evidence regarding its origin. It started with Frau Troffea in July 1518, when she stepped on the streets of Strasbourg, Alsace (Modern-day France) of the Roman Empire, and started dancing zealously and surprisingly continuously, for one week. Within that week, 34 others joined, and by the onset of August, there were 400 dancers in the group.
Superstitions around Dancing Plague:
As the days passed, it was noticed that the plague killed, on average, 15 people a day by various factors such as heart attack, stroke, exhaustion, etc. However, the root reason as yet unknown. While the entire situation may sound weird and unbelievable, physician notes, sermons, chronicles, and city council notes, confirmed that residents of Strasbourg danced uncontrollably.
As the plague worsened, officials of the town were bewildered and sought the advice of physicians and doctors who debunked the cause of the plague to be something supernatural, and said that it was due to the presence of hot blood, which is an intense passion or sometimes a short temper. The most obvious solution would be a bloodletting. Still, the authorities concerned local physicians who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, encouraged more dancing, on a baseless idea that the only way to cure this illness would be to let the people dance.
They would eventually stop, one way or another. They opened up two guildhalls and a grain market and even constructed platforms. Also, They called for musicians to accompany the ‘dancers.’
The entire situation soon spiraled out of control and performing the dances in public places only led to the illness having a deadly effect. The strange episode didn’t end until September when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution. Just to make the dancing plague a bit more bizarre, there were at least seven other cases of it in the same region during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar in 1840and also in Switzerland, Germany and Holland.
Notable historian John Wallen (1785-1865) was quoted saying, "Marathon runners would not be able to last the intense workout that these men and women did." Dancing on an average burns 443 calories an hour, which means even dancing for one day would lead to a loss of 10,600 calories, and with no replenishment, it would be impossible for any individual to survive.
There are several theories that try to find the reason for this occurrence. Modern theories include food poisoning by psychoactive substances in bread made from flour which was contaminated with fungal disease ergot known for producing convulsions. This psychoactive substance, Ergotamine, is the main component of the drug LSD which is known for causing hallucinations and uncharacteristic behavior in individuals. In the Lancet, Waller argues that this theory isn't tangible enough as the effect of LSD, under no circumstances can be so long-lasting. A large number of people with varying degrees of tolerance can't react in the same way to psychotropic substances. Waller says that he believes that the dance epidemic was a psychological disorder caused by stress since the region where it broke out was one struck by starvation and disease, such as smallpox and syphilis. He said it could be hysteria lashing out in uncharacteristic ways and exhibiting the same bizarre behavior in people. It was noted that the majority of the victims where adolescent females and the reasoning for the same is stereotypical, yet the somewhat true belief that males have a greater hold on their emotions that females and adolescent females specifically experience a rush of uncontrolled emotions.
Though locals believed it to be curse received, failing to please St. Vitus, patron saint of epileptics and of dancers. The entire situation was confusing and shocking. The thing that scares people most is that it can very well happen again, as an illness in mind is the most difficult one to cure.
While theories spring up every now and then Waller's explanation seems to be the more plausible one, and it calls for a focus on psychological diseases and their ability to do more harm than a patent disease.
Read more such interestingly mysterious incidents in The Socians