Dance Until You Die!

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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There are exactly two groups of people who usually associate dancing with death:

  1. middle schoolers with sweaty armpits, and
  2. unwitting parents who find themselves stuck busting a move in the Salem High School gymnasium.

In case you’re not a big pumpkin spice latte drinker, let me explain the latter reference: in the cult classic Hocus Pocus, Bette Midler plays a witch named Winifred, one of three 16th century sisters who is reborn in the late 1990s and flits off in search of eternal beauty, youth, and children to eat. Part of Winifred’s (admittedly not airtight) plot involves storming the stage at a party she’s not invited to, performing an elaborately choreographed musical number with backup dancers, and cursing the audience with a painful and slow death. Otherwise known as reenacting any of my average Friday nights in college.

While Winifred’s chosen hex of “Dance, dance until you die!” may seem a little out of left field, it makes more sense when you consider that Winifred would have lived through a time when a cruel and terrible illness swept through Europe, killing hundreds of people and leaving onlookers fearful and mystified.

The cruel and terrible illness I’m talking about, of course, is the dancing plague.

Excuse Me, WHAT?!

Yes, you read that correctly.

For six centuries, villages across Europe experienced a phenomenon now known as the dancing plague. And before you call BS, let me assure you that yes, this phenomenon was very much real and the reason I know it was real is because it has its own WebMD page1. As any hypochondriac with the Internet knows, if an illness has a WebMD page, it is a.) real, and b.) probably brain cancer.

The first known occurrence of the dancing plague dates back to the tenth century, with the most famous case happening in 1518 in the city of Strasbourg (at that time a free city in the Holy Roman Empire, now a free city2 in modern-day France).3

All in all, as many as several thousand people across dozens of villages in multiple countries were diagnosed with the dancing plague. Several thousand people may not seem like a lot when compared to other medieval illnesses like the Black Death, but is certainly way more people than should fall victim to “compulsive frenzied activity.”4

Diagnosing the Dancing Plague

If you’re the kind of person who a.) sneezes and then frantically consults Dr. Google, and b.) likes to cut a rug, you may be wondering if you, too, have the dancing plague.

Luckily for you, I created a quick two-question test that will help determine whether you are the first modern victim of this mysterious disease:

  1. Are you dancing?
  2. Can you stop?

If your answer is “yes” to both questions, congratulations! You are both not a victim of the dancing plague and a crack multitasker! (Really, though, you probably shouldn’t be dancing while reading this article.)

In all seriousness, the medieval criteria for diagnosing the dancing plague was basically as simple as that. If a person suddenly and inexplicably started dancing and never stopped, they had the dancing plague.

Now, I know this sounds absolutely insane, but bear with me. The dancing plague was a real thing that actually happened. So just think of how it must have seemed to the good citizens of Strasbourg when the disease took hold. One moment, they’re minding their own business, and the next, a kindly woman named Frau Troffea is stepping into the streets and dancing until she collapses from exhaustion.

“Dance, dance until you die!”

That’s just how it happened, too: one day, in July 1518, Frau Troffea began to dance. Hours later, the good Frau passed out, only to resume her manic movements after she had rested for a bit. Had Frau Troffea been the only person to suffer from these strange symptoms, the citizens of Strasbourg may have written the incident off as a mere curiosity. However, over the next few days, more than 30 other people began to dance unceasingly, too. By August, more than 400 people were victims.

City officials, who I imagine were initially fairly bemused, quickly grew concerned. People were literally dancing until they died, with no reasonable explanation or cure. Once a person began to dance, he or she would not stop, not even when battling injury or exhaustion.

At a loss for an explanation, local leaders did the only thing they could think of.

They threw a giant party.

I’ve Got a Fever and the Only Prescription Is…

Faced with baffled physicians and an ailing populace, the leadership in Strasbourg decided that the only prescription for the dancing plague was more cowbell dancing.

To that end, the healthy citizens in Strasbourg constructed a huge stage and brought in professional dancers to inspire and intermingle with the sick. They even brought a band to provide music for the victims to dance to!.5

Unfortunately, none of these “cures” worked, and the dancers continued (sometimes dropping dead of strokes or heart attacks) until early September when the dancing plague began to disappear, just as quickly and mysteriously as it arrived.

Potential Causes

To this day, the dancing plague baffles scholars, who’ve never been able to figure out what was going on in Strasbourg and why.6 That being said, a number of possible causes have been thrown about over the years.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common.

Overheated Blood

The primary contemporary explanation for the dancing plague was that the victims suffered from something called “overheated blood.”7

Now, there’s not a really great explanation of what “overheated blood” actually means. From what I can tell based on the primary and secondary sources available, overheated blood was basically a euphemistic catchall for when someone was feeling a little different than the norm of sixteenth-century physical and emotional health standards.8 If you had a fever, you had overheated blood. If you decided to go buckwild at the local tavern, you had overheated blood. If you suddenly began dancing with no reasonable explanation, you had overheated blood.

The general “cure” for overheated blood was to get rid of it, in one way or another. Physicians would often “bleed” a patient to drain them of the offending juices, or, in the case of the dancing plague, prescribe a treatment that would get the blood out of the person’s system. That was the thinking behind building a stage and hiring a band: the dancers would be able to dance that overheated blood right out of their bodies.

Needless to say, it didn’t work.

The Curse of St. Vitus

“Don’t f*** with me.”

Another popular contemporary explanation for the dancing plague was that the dancers, their friends and their families had done something to piss off St. Vitus. Sixteenth century Europeans were a pious lot, and hard times were often traced back to moralistic failings on the part of the sufferers. The dancers in Strasbourg were thought to have offended Vitus, who was the patron saint of artists, dancers, and comedians.9

In the late Middle Ages, people in parts of the Holy Roman Empire often celebrated the feast of St. Vitus by dancing before his statue.10 It was thought that the citizens of Strasbourg had (albeit inadvertently) offended the martyr, leading to the onset of the dancing plague. In fact, after the whole hire-a-band-and-hope-for-the-best strategy didn’t pan out, victims of the disease were taken to a mountaintop to pray to St. Vitus for absolution.11 The plague did seem to die down after that trip, but scholars, for some reason, don’t seem to put much faith in this theory.

The Tarantallegra Curse

If you have been reading this article and saying to yourself, “Why, that sounds like the Tarantallegra curse!”, a.) we should be friends, and b.) I bet you’d really enjoy our Completely Unofficial & Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tours in NYC and San Francisco.

Personally, when I first heard about the dancing plague, I thought it sounded a lot like a wizard with a sick sense of humor on a power trip. As far as I can tell, though, there were no known Death Eaters in sixteenth-century Strasbourg.12

Fungal Disease

As a deep lover of all things dairy and carb, I have often romanticized the stereotypical medieval European meal of ale, bread, and cheese. After all, ale, bread, and cheese remain my staunch foods of choice in a world that tells me to eat lots of kale and enjoy it.

Modern examination of the dancing plague, however, has done its part to convince me that, just perhaps, the peasants forced to subsist on bread and cheese weren’t actually very lucky. One of the most credible theories about the dancing plague is that the dancers were actually suffering from fungal poisoning.13 Ergot is a toxic mold that grows on damp rye (which was used to make a lot of the bread across medieval Europe) and, when ingested, can produce spasms and hallucinations. It’s possible that the baker in Strasbourg served some pretty shady bread, thereby accidentally poisoning a huge portion of his hometown.

Nice going, dude.

Raise a Glass

#basic

Whatever the cause of the dancing plague, I think we can all agree that it sounds like a pretty terrible way to die. I, for one, know exactly how awful I felt the morning after a 30-minute trip to “the club” in my late twenties. I can only imagine what actually dancing to death felt like for hundreds of people in medieval Europe.

In honor of their memories, I will be pouring out a little bit of my pumpkin spice latte next Halloween while I watch Hocus Pocus. I hope you’ll join me.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. It’s also referenced in many scholarly publications.
  2. I did not fact-check this, but I’m assuming it’s true.
  3. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  4. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  5. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  6. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  7. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  8. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  9. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). “Sts. Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  10. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). “Sts. Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  11. Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). “Sts. Vitus, Modestus, and Crescentia“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  12. I know the Death Eaters were founded in the mid-twentieth century, don’t @ me.
  13. Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Andrews, E. (2015, August). What was the dancing plague of 1518? Accessed from: https://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518
  • Bauer, Patricia. (Accessed March 2018). Dancing plague of 1518. Accessed from: https://www.britannica.com/event/dancing-plague-of-1518
  • Waller, John. (2008, September). Dancing Death. Accessed from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7608000/7608874.stm
  • Waller, John (2008). A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. Thriplow: Icon Books.