The Curse of the Dancing Plague

The Curse of the Dancing Plague

Dance ‘Till You Drop

While that title might sound like a really bad (or really awesome) 80s horror movie, the dancing plague, also known as dancing mania, was a real phenomenon that took place throughout various parts of Europe up until the 17th century. To put it simply, it involved people who engaged in uncontrollable dance sessions that lasted for hours on end. It oftentimes started with just one person and quickly devolved into a flash mob (although probably not choreographed as well). If you look at some of the largest outbreak of dancing mania you have gatherings of thousands of people coming together to boogie down, whether they wanted to or not.

This was a very weird phenomenon and one which, unsurprisingly, was poorly understood. Back then, the standard explanations were spirits and demons. However, even now we don’t have a conclusive answer as to what could possibly have caused this odd behavior. Some give various psychological explanations for the phenomenon, labeling it as one of the first cases of mass hysteria. Some people took part out of a natural feeling we have of wanting to belong to a group. Others might have simply been bored or depressed with the grueling life of the average peasant at that time and wanted to escape reality. Of course, a good portion of the dancers were just plain nuts.

Dancing Plague Pieter Brueghel

People afflicted with the dancing plague

Other experts give physical explanations by pointing at various illnesses such as typhus and epilepsy that could account for some of the symptoms of the dancers. An even more plausible hypothesis would be ergot poisoning (back then known as St. Anthony’s fire). It used to be a common problem as ergots affected many crops and prolonged consumption could cause hallucinations and even psychosis.

Of course, when it comes to such bizarre behavior, the most obvious conclusion most people would make is that it was fake. At least the people who started these events did it on purpose and then simply relied on the fact that others will join in. Although it might sound like a conspiracy theory, it does have some validity. Specifically, it was done by various cults that weren’t allowed to practice their religious rituals normally, but used dancing mania as an excuse to do so. Certainly, even if this was the case, not all participants would be in on the scam. There were reports of people actually dying due to exhaustion or heart failure. As deaths go, this isn’t a particularly pleasant one. Just imagine being forced to do the Macarena for the rest of your life.

So how was this affliction cured? Very weirdly. When large groups of dancers began to form, musicians were sent to play music. The idea was that the only thing to stop the dancing…was more dancing. Those who did stop usually fell down due to exhaustion. Others simply proclaimed that they were cured and went home. Presumably, these were the ones who were faking it and only did it to join the party. Sure enough, the dancing plague was the perfect excuse for people to behave as lunatics in a time of severe oppression and many took advantage. There were reports of people running around naked, making obscene gestures at others, acting like animals and even having sex. More or less, they saw the dancing plague as a “Get out of jail, free” card.

The worst case recorded in history was that of the Dancing Plague of 1518 which took place in Strasbourg. Supposedly, it all started with just one woman who danced for several days straight. The entire outbreak lasted for over a month and, at times, hundreds of people danced at a time. Eventually, the authorities adopted a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality and began encouraging the dancing by constructing a stage and opening several guildhalls for the “afflicted”. In essence, the entire event turned into one giant month-long party.

Bonus Fact: When the dancing mania began appearing in Italy, people attributed it to the bite of a venomous spider and the phenomenon was called Tarantism.

TL;DR Version

  • The dancing plague was a phenomenon where people couldn’t stop dancing.
  • It was a problem in Europe thought the Middle Ages up until the 17th century
  • Various likely explanations have been given. Some state that the entire event was a case of mass hysteria.
  • Others claim it was a form of ergot poisoning or some other kind of physical illness.
  • It could have also been staged by outlawed cults that weren’t normally allowed to perform their religious rituals.
  • No doubt, many of the people who took part were simply peasants looking to escape their horrible lives and let go of their inhibitions.
  • One particularly notable outbreak took place in Strasbourg in 1518.