Can’t Stop Dancing? Read This Cautionary Tale

by Kevin Burton

   You say the YMCA dance made you sick in the 70s? The Bump?  That Saturday Night Fever pointing dance?

   But did anybody ever die from it?

   From reporter Rosalind Jana on the BBC, comes the story of a dance craze that was truly crazy.

   In Strasbourg, France, in 1518 (or 450+ years before disco), a bizarre “dance plague” broke out.

   “Like all good plague stories, this one begins with omens. A star streaks across the sky. Fields flood. Extreme cold is followed by extreme heat, which is followed, inevitably, by extreme hunger,” Jana wrote.  

   “On a sweltering summer’s day in July 1518 a woman called Frau Troffea steps into a square in Strasbourg and begins to dance. At first those around her only watch, curiosity piqued by this unusual public display. They watch a woman who will not, cannot, stop.”

   “She dances for nearly a week, felled occasionally by exhaustion but largely undaunted by the body’s other warning signs: pain, hunger, shame. There is no music. Her heart keeps the tempo, working hard to make the motion continue,” Jana wrote.

   “By the time she is taken away, it is too late. Others have joined. By August there will be hundreds. Like her, they cannot explain themselves. They dance as if compelled, feet bloodied and limbs twitching.”

   “A poem taken from a contemporary chronicle describes ‘women and men who dance and hop…in the public market, in alleys and streets…day and night until the sickness finally stops,’” Jana writes.

   “Further chronicles outline the measures taken by the authorities in response. One writer describes dancers being carted off to St Vitus’s shrine outside the city, where they are ‘given small crosses and red shoes.’ Another mentions more direct arrangements made for the dancers to tire them into submission, with ‘persons… specially appointed to dance with them for payment, to the music of drums and pipes.’ This does not help. ‘All this was of no avail, and many danced themselves to death,’” Jana writes.

   Word to the wise you dancers, don’t stop till you get enough, but at that point, yes, definitely stop.

   “Ultimately, the story of a surreal summer in Strasbourg is just that: a story,” Jana writes. “Mass dancing of some form is documented in at least six different contemporaneous chronicles, the dancers’ motions reportedly continuing for weeks. Frau Troffea is named as the instigator in several of them.”

   “Beyond that, details begin to diverge. Various starting dates are given. Different methods of dealing with the phenomenon are emphasized. Like plenty of other historical events, a portrait is drawn from fragments,” Jana writes.

   There is a term, choreomania, for the clinical condition of not being able to stop dancing.

   Of course we don’t know how or when we are going to die. However, you can put choreomania at the very bottom of my likely causes of death. More likely would be acute pork rind poisoning.

    I hate dancing and have avoided it with some measure of creativity. I have begged off dancing at times, saying, “no, I’m a singer,” as if one couldn’t be both a dancer and a singer.  Even I have been shocked at how many people have fallen for that one.

   So that is how I have come to write so much about rock and roll music on Page 7, but next to nothing about dancing, even though the two are joined at the hip. 

   It makes sense to me that a compulsion to dance would be driven by ants in the pants, or a similar misfortune.

   Those who think a dance “craze” is just the latest set of movements should remember where the term comes from. My friends at Merriam-Webster define the noun craze as “an exaggerated and often transient enthusiasm; mania” and the verb as “to make insane or as if insane.”

   “Though it is now the most famous example, Strasbourg was not the only dance plague to hit Europe during the medieval and early modern era,” Jana wrote. “Many instances of uncontrolled or threatening dancing were recorded in Germany, France, and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire.”

   “In the 500 or so years since Strasbourg’s so-called dance plague occurred, many theories have been proffered to explain what exactly happened. It is an event that grips us to this day, inviting retellings, and inspiring artists and creatives to put their own spin on these strange happenings,” Jana wrote, adding that some attributed the dancing to demonic influences.

   The BBC story was written to highlight two new works being released under the theme of choreomania, the album “Dance Fever” by Florence and The Machine and “The Dance Tree,” a book by best-selling author Kiran Millwood Hargrove. 

   I won’t be checking into either of these. I leave them to you dear reader. Enjoy them at your own risk.

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