Day 534: Dancing ‘Til You Drop Dead

originally published June 17, 2013

Boogie Fever. Rockin’ Pneumonia. The Boogie-Woogie Flu. So many dances, so many accompanying ailments.

But that’s all the stuff of fiction, right? Silly little catchphrases developed in order to make a new dance (and its accompanying record) sound so appealing it’s downright infectious. We all know this is just a gimmick. And one which hasn’t been employed since the days of disco – what if some savvy song craftsman had penned the Lambada Lupus, the Macarena Macular Degeneration or Gagnam-Gangrene?

But I’m not interested in phony dance diseases, not when there’s the real thing to write about. Once upon a time, back when the Black Plague had recently and mercifully subsided into the annals of history, the world caught a little case of actual boogie fever. And it may have claimed the lives of thousands.

It was a warm July day in 1518. The town of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of France – you know, that region Germany always takes over first whenever they invade – was quiet and tranquil. People often journeyed there to check out the Strasbourg Cathedral, the tallest building in the world. On that July day, they would have had another reason to drop by.

A woman by the name of Frau Troffea suddenly began to dance. And not one of those white-guy-beside-the-dance-floor mild hip-sways; Frau Troffea was seriously getting her funk on in the middle of the street. There was no music, no horses clip-clopping a percussive groove to set her tootsies a-wailin’. She just started dancing like a maniac and no one knew why. Within a week, 34 people had joined her. It was contagious – totally and completely illogical, but somehow transmittable to others.

After a month there were about 400 dancers clogging up the streets of Strasbourg. Historical records from official city documents, religious records and physician notes all correlate this phenomenon. Before long, the dancers started dying off. Exhaustion, heart attack, exercise-induced stroke… as healthy as kicking up one’s heels may be, doing so to the point of running one’s body down to an unsustainable nub is not a good idea.

Local nobles, who were probably feeling a bit inconvenienced at having to wade through the shimmies, twists and thumb-extended jilted kick moves in the street, turned to the Strasbourg physicians in hopes of finding a cure.

The first step was to remove any doubt of an astrological or supernatural cause, because back then, those were considered actual sciences. Once the doctors had determined that Libra’s position in the house of Saturn (or whatever the fuck) was not setting these local hips into swivel mode, and that Satan was already booked for the summer in some other dark corner of the world, they determined that this was a natural disease. One caused by ‘hot blood’. “Check it and see,” one physician was quoted as saying. “The lady hath a fever of a hundred and three.”

Surprisingly, bleeding by leeches was not a recommended course of action for this hot-bloodedness. The doctors encouraged more dancing, believing if the afflicted people would simply continue to dance night and day, eventually they’d get the jive out of their systems and be cured. Two guildhalls and a grain market were opened for the dancers, and a wooden stage was built. Musicians were hired to keep the dancers moving, and perhaps to make the whole scene appear a little less disturbing to those not in mid-boogie.

But this was not the first case of uncontrollable dance fever, nor would it be the last. We’re deep into the weird side of history here, and it keeps getting stranger.

Also known as ‘choreomania’, dancing mania was actually a semi-regular occurrence in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. Some called it St. Vitus’ Dance or St. John’s Dance, as they believed one of those religious historical figures was somehow responsible. And though the phenomenon was widespread and sufficiently documented to provide us with inarguable proof of its existence, scientists are still at a loss to explain what the hell was going on.

Was it Sydenham’s Chorea, a nervous disorder linked with a childhood Streptococcus infection? Some sort of disease of the nervous system? Perhaps a mass psychological hysteria?

The first known occurrence of dancing mania occurred in the 7th century. Then, at some point in the 1020’s, a gaggle of peasants began spontaneously dancing around a church on Christmas Eve. In 1278, a batch of 200 people began inexplicably kicking out the jams on a bridge over the River Meuse in Germany. The bridge collapsed, killing nearly everyone involved.

In Italy, people suffered from tarantism, in which they panicked after being poisoned by a tarantula or scorpion. In their fervent desire to avoid death, they would dance manically in order to separate the venom from their blood. These folks craved music though – some died when there was no music to accompany their grooving.

Some of these manic dancers did so in the nude, while others would ramp up the ante by performing lewd gestures or having full-on intercourse in the streets. They were hypnotically unconscious, and weren’t likely to be held responsible for their actions. Some would react fiercely to the color red or black, becoming violent and even more unruly upon seeing it.

Ruling out curses or demonic possession, another possible explanation for dancing mania was ergot poisoning. Those little fungal bastards could infect rye crops and induce hallucinations. Not so much insatiable dancing, but some felt there might be a link there. It may have been a weird variant of epilepsy or encephalitis, but that’s a weak guess. Some believe it may have simply been a coping mechanism for stress due to natural disasters, poverty, and a generally shitty way of life.

On the subversive side, another theory suggests that the dances were all staged. Perhaps some pagan-ish cults were working their illegal ritualistic dances into what appeared to be an uncontrollable state of limb-flinging. Many people may have simply joined in because everyone else was doing it.

Dancing mania shows up all over the historical timeline. A huge outbreak began on June 24, 1374 in Aix-la-Chapelle, Aachen, now a part of Germany. It spread through Italy, Luxembourg, France, and Holland. Whether this was simply a mass-transmission of sheep-like stupidity, like family stick-person car stickers or watching Two And A Half Men, or whether it was truly a physical ailment, we will probably never know for certain.

Fortunately, if such a condition ever resurfaces, it’ll be all over Youtube so at least those of us who are far removed from the action can still watch.

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