Flashback Friday: Dance Plague

They danced their little hearts out in 1237 A.D.
Flashback Friday: Dance Plague
Depiction of the dance plague of 1518 by Pieter Brueghel/ Wikimedia Commons

From the November, 1980 issue of High Times comes John A. Keel’s contribution to the “Last Words” column, all about the phenomenon of so-called “dancing mania.

First, lift your left foot as high as it will go… and hold it there. Now raise your right foot until it is parallel to the left one. If you descend rapidly to an uncomfortable position on your rotund posterior, you have failed the test But if you remain suspended in midair you may have an even worse problem. You are levitating, an act that is against the law in 32 countries, and you may be suffering from chorea, a dread disease that swept from Turkey to Ireland in medieval times, killing thousands and turning entire continents into huge outdoor discos. Known as the dancing mania, chorea caused more spirited toe-tapping than tight shoes at a convention of flamenco dancers.

For some unknown reason, the dancing mania seemed to follow epidemics of the black plague. A three-year epidemic in 1005-1008 AD. wiped out an estimated one-half of the entire human race! (And you’ve been worrying about the possibility that a paltry little atom bomb might drop down your chimney!) A few years later, in 1027, the first known attack of dancing mania gripped England and most of Europe, mainly affecting children under the age of ten. Mobs of youngsters fled their homes and parents to gather in the streets, form circles and dance their little hearts out until they fell from exhaustion or dropped dead. Adults gathered to watch in horror as the children pranced and screamed, glassy eyed, motivated not by music but by some strange compulsion. The next major outbreak took place in the year 1237 in Egypt. Again, the chief victims were small children, doing the cosmic two-step after another cruel wave of the plague in far-off Europe.

Perhaps the most famous case of dancing mania occurred in Germany in 1284. The children of Hamelin waltzed and wriggled their way into the countryside, never to be seen again. This true incident inspired the folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and every year the people of that town still hold a festival in honor of the lost children.

Around 1335, the worst epidemic of the plague covered the globe and killed over three-fourths of the human race. As if this rampage wasn’t enough, when it was all over the survivors went looking for scapegoats. They settled upon the Jews and witches, and during the next two centuries no fewer than seven million people were tortured and burned at the stake. Simultaneously with this murderous insanity, another great epidemic of the dancing mania spread from Greece to France. Now people of all ages were affected. They swarmed into the streets of the old cities to clasp hands and dance uncontrolled for days, sometimes for weeks, without food—even without going to the bathroom. Peasants abandoned their plows and headed for the village squares. Merchants closed their stores. Servants deserted their masters. The author Plater claimed he saw a woman in Basel who danced without pause for an entire month. The cities where the mania struck were quickly reduced to ruins. And, as if things weren’t rotten enough, the records of the period make cryptic references to mysterious “aerial phenomena”—weird lights in the sky, haunting the atmosphere, accompanied by eerie noises and rumbles. Those outdoor discos had their own peculiar light shows!

Those people who had the ill luck to live through the plagues and the wild orgies of dancing reported experiencing frightening hallucinations. Some thought they were immersed in a sea of blood and their high-stepping antics were a frantic effort to leap out of it. Others underwent religious visions, seeing angels, the Virgin Mary and strange demonic entities.

Since most countries were isolated and communications were slow during the Dark Ages, the dancing mania was known by many names in many languages. To some it was Saint Vitus’s dance. The medical men of the day called it choromania or orchestromania. In the Middle East it was called tarantism, because it was supposedly induced by the bite of a tarantula. Actually, we don’t know the real cause. Some suspect it may have been caused by spoiled bread (which is known to produce LSD-type effects).

The dancing mania presented yet another hazard: terminal horniness. The dancers often became sex crazed and in their desperate attempts to satisfy their urgent lusts they often ran afoul of irate husbands and wives. While crude records were kept of the plague, no one knows how many victims of the dancing mania fell from heart attacks or were felled by angry spouses.

The last important outbreak of chorea was in 1841 in Syria. As in earlier times, thousands of wild-eyed people flooded into the streets of the Syrian cities and villages, their hips grinding to some inner music. After that, things became relatively quiet until the invention of the discotheque.

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