This story starts in the Holy Roman Empire (Modern Day France) during July of 1518 when a person by the name of Frau Troffea had an uncontrollable desire to start dancing. She danced continuously at every waking moment. After a few days, other people joined in. There was no music, just silent dancing. By the time August rolled around, there were more than 400 people who followed suit, all-dancing non-stop.
Some people danced until they collapsed and died.
Doctors of that time regarded this as a “Hot Blood” plague and believed that the dancing was just a symptom.
Not really knowing what to do, the town constructed a stage and brought in a band so that people had music to dance to, and to contain everyone who had this urge to dance. Many people died from sheer exhaustion, strokes, and heart attacks. Was this a virus, or just crowd hysteria?
According to historian John Waller, this might have something to do with a Catholic Saint known as St. Vitus. At the time, Europeans believed that he the ability to curse people with a dancing plague.
Other people claimed that the dancers were members of a religious cult, or maybe they accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mold that grows on damp rye and produces spasms and hallucinations. It was reported that about 15 people were dying every day from the dancing plague.
Is there a modern-day explanation for this dancing disease?
Actually, there is a disease of the nervous system called “Epidemic Chorea.” This is a disease of the nervous system which causes people to move uncontrollably, resembling dancing. Some consider this a form of epilepsy.
This urge to dance to death has happened before.
In 1374 crowds of people began to stream into towns around the river Rhine, where they started uncontrollably dancing before the altar of the Virgin. The dance movements were incoherent and frenzied, marked by manic twists, jumps, and spins.
It was an uncontrollable mania. One that gripped the minds and bodies of those afflicted. This was considered by the local priest as the work of the devil as they danced and held each other’s hands and leaped high into the air. They danced until complete exhaustion and fell to the ground, then got back up and danced some more until many of them died from strokes and heart attacks.
The church tries to end the dance of death plague.
In an attempt to end the dance of death plague, some church authorities denounced the dancers as non-believers of the church. Some of them were dragged to the church where they were tortured. Their reasoning being they were trying to drive the demons out of the dancers.
In some cases, the church leaders attempted to slap the dancers back to their senses. If that didn’t work, they would completely submerge the dancers in barrels of water.
After several months the dancing finally stopped. The church claimed that their actions were effective in eliminating the problem. Those who died in the process were determined to be lost souls to demonic forces. The dancing plague didn’t return for more than 100 years.
The earliest known dancing plague outbreak was recorded in the 7th century.
Not much was known about this outbreak, except for the fact that it happened. It also happened again in the year 1020, when 18 people began to uncontrollably dance.
Anytime there is any hint of physical or mental loss of control, doctors and scientists work to explain the condition, often giving it names and trying to categorize the illness. You don’t hear much about the religious aspect. My question would be: “If the uncontrollable dancing wasn’t just a plague, virus, or disease, then what is it?”
Maybe the church was right. Maybe it was the devil or even a curse. That would explain the mystery of why someone would dance themselves to death.
Why some people refuse to dance.
After learning about the dancing plague, I can understand why some people and religions are against dancing. Did you know that in Japan, dancing in public is actually against the law? The only exception is for clubs that obtain a special license, and dancing is controlled. You can’t dance past midnight. This law was passed in 1948, but largely ignored and forgotten.
In Elmore City, Oklahoma a law against dancing was still on the books since 1898. In 1980 this law was finally overturned by an effort from students at Elmore City High School who wanted to hold a prom dance.
It seems that in the past couple hundred years, the dancing plague is gone.
However, I want to point out that this has happened before. Just when you thought it was safe to go back out onto the dance floor, the dancing to death plague could return.