Victims of the 1518 Strasbourg Dance Plague
Almost everybody gets a tune or jingle stuck in his or head from time to time, and just can’t seem to get it out, humming or mumbling it on and off for hours or maybe days on end. But what about the next level: how about a dance move that one can’t stop? Almost everyone loves a good boogie, but what happens if the boogie is so good that you just can’t quit, and end up dancing yourself to death?
That is what the good people of Strasbourg, Alsace, in what is now France, discovered in July of 1518 when their town was struck with a dancing mania, as hundreds of people started dancing nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion.
It all started innocently enough on a typical July morning when a Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. Onlookers clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more, without rest or respite for 6 days. Within a week, she had been joined by dozens in her marathon dance, mostly women.
Concerned, authorities consulted local physicians, who ruled that the plague was caused by “hot blood”. Convinced that the dancers would recover only if they got it out of their system by dancing continuously, musicians were hired, a wooden stage was erected, and additional dancing space was made by opening up guildhalls and clearing out a marketplace to make more room. Those measures backfired and simply ended up encouraging even more people to join the craze. Within a month, the number of nonstop dancers had ballooned into the hundreds, and at the height of the dance fever, 15 residents were dying each day from exhaustion and heart attacks.
The Strasbourg dance plague was not an isolated incident, and between the 14th and 17th centuries, there were enough similar outbreaks for contemporaries to coin a term for the phenomena: Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. There is no modern consensus on the cause, so it is simply categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass public hysteria, or a mass psychogenic illness of unknown provenance.