Frau Troffea seemed normal enough. She washed dishes, hung the laundry and did a good bit of gossiping just like every other woman in Strasbourg in the year 1518.

That is until the night of July 14th.

Maybe it was something she ate, maybe she was overtired from doing laundry, no one will ever really know. It started with a tap of the toe, then a gentle sway of the hips. Soon she was in a full-fledged dance. Without a band, without a singer, without even a Walkman. Out into the cobbled streets, she went and those feet started flying. Clackity clackity clackity went her shoes against the stones.

 She danced while her neighbors made dinner; she danced when the children went to bed, she was still dancing when the sun went down. Finally, she collapsed from exhaustion. Yet with the crow of the rooster and the rising of the sun she was dancing again. For about six days she danced while a crowd of people looked on at the unusual sight.

“She seemed like such a normal woman,” they said. “Who would have thought she would end up the dancing queen?”

“It’s a curse!” The authorities yelled and sent her to the shrine of Saint Vitus to beg forgiveness. Then they congratulated themselves on a job well done. 

When they turned around, however, what did they see but more dancers, then more and more until by the end of the month 400 people were crazy footloose. It seemed they were in the midst of an epidemic. Only it was worse than that.

 It was a plague — A plague of dancing.

The dancing plague was also known as choreomania, St. John’s Dance and St. Vitus’s Dance (Wikimedia Commons)

Shut Up And Dance

Obviously a disease from overheated blood,” said the doctors who were called in to investigate. In their expert wisdom, they decided the best way to end the plague was to encourage more dancing. 

“We’ll call it the Safety Dance,” they declared and called in workers to build a big stage. Drums, fiddles, pipes, and horns were brought in along with healthy dancers to keep the party going. Not surprisingly the cure only made things worse. Heart attacks, strokes, and just plain exhaustion got the better of many of the dancers, causing a death rate of about 15 people a day. Thinking the failure of the all-out dance policy wasn’t going to get them many votes, the politicians made a 360 turn.

 “Music and Dancing are hereby outlawed,” they shouted. “Not a whistle, not a hum — not even a long melodious burp will be tolerated until September.”

As for those who still couldn’t stop dancing, they were headed for a vacation at the shrine of St. Vitus. It seems Frau Troffea had fared well on her visit. Maybe the saint would help the others as well. Of course, the priests weren’t at all surprised. They said from the start the thing was demonic, and who’s to say they were wrong? Once the afflicted arrived at the shrine, they were placed under a statue of the saint, sprinkled with holy water, and anointed with oil. Once the process was completed, the patient was cured. Recover rates were so high, the rest of the towns oppressed were sent until the plague was finally brought to an end.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is thought to be based on a dancing plague in 1237 

Save The Last Dance For Me

On looking back at the event the Swiss physician Paracelsus came up with a very scientific answer to what had caused the plague.

Spite.

Frau Troffea was fed up with her husband and wanted to find a way to really stick it to him. She figured embarrassment was the key to his destruction. Knowing how he hated her singing, she jumped about crooning loudly, all the while pretending the thing was a sickness. Once she started, other wives took up the idea and joined in. Chorea lasciva he called it. A mania caused by unruly desires. Of course, he came up with some other causes too, not everyone could be classified as a vengeance-seeking wife after all. 

Women must have passed this secret way to piss off husbands down through the ages because this wasn’t the first dancing plague. In fact, there were about ten separate occurrences, the first being in 1374. Strasburg saw its first case in 1418. Day and night they danced through the streets, their steps accompanied by the music of a group of bagpipers. Symptoms could be as mild as long bouts of laughter and extreme joy or as severe as a pained trance-like state. 

Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Wedding Dance (Wikimedia Commons)

So what caused it? 

Encephalitis? Epilepsy? Typhus? Who knows? Ergot poisoning was a popular diagnosis for a while. Popular, but infeasible. Ergot, a mold that grows on rye, causes similar symptoms such as twitching and jerking, but it also restricts blood flow. Dancing for days on end, therefore, wouldn’t really be possible. The best possible explanation seems to be a series of disasters such as the black plague, poor harvests, and regional instability caused what amounted to a mass nervous breakdown.

Notes and Sources:

For you youngin’s, a Walkman was a portable cassette player that was popular in the ’80s. Don’t know what a cassette is either? Google it.

https://archive.org/details/00338041.9352.emory.edu/page/n109

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS014067360960386X/fulltext

https://www.history.com/news/what-was-the-dancing-plague-of-1518

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161028-the-town-the-nearly-danced-itself-to-death

After falling asleep during too many history lessons, Nicol Valentin decided to do something about it. You can find her freeing history from the bonds of boredom at her website NicolValentin.com or on MediumNicolValentinon Medium.
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After falling asleep during too many history lessons, Nicol Valentin decided to do something about it. You can find her freeing history from the bonds of boredom at her website NicolValentin.com or on MediumNicolValentinon Medium.

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