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Thursday, October 25, 2012


On a warm Saturday afternoon on June 24, 1374, in the German city of Aachen, a number of people gathered and began to dance in the street. As they gyrated, twitched, and jumped (without any music), some began to experience hallucinations. These folks danced uncontrollably until they collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. Historians and psychologists believed this to be the first large scale outbreak of “Dancing Mania.”

Aachen did not represent the only manifestation of this behavior however. Dancing Mania, a predominantly social phenomenon, occurred across Europe. Other Dancing Mania expressions were soon witnessed to Cologne, Strasbourg, Metz, and Flanders. Within two years, it had been seen all over Germany as well as in France, Holland, Luxembourg, and Italy. It existed off and on for almost 300 years.

Some dancers would not only twist and twirl for hours but for days, and a few for weeks. They would frequently wear bizarre and colorful clothing and carry wooden sticks. Some would dance naked and make obscene gestures. Others pretended to be animals, leaping and hopping around. It was noted by observers that the dancers hated the color red, which dove them to violence. Most sang, some screamed, others laughed or cried. Occasionally there was musical accompaniment. 

Their activity was not without consequences. Many experienced chest pains, convulsions, hyperventilation, and of course physical exhaustion. Some underwent heart attacks and died. Visions and hallucinations were frequently reported. Dancing Mania affected individuals and groups; men and women (and even children). Some of the dancing groups numbered several thousand people.

So what’s going on?

There is no agreement among researchers as to the cause behind Dancing Mania. It was originally called the “Dancing Plague” and people of the time believed that the condition was a curse placed on them by either St. Vitus or St. John. Hence it was also named “St. Vitus’ Dance” or “St. John’s Dance.” Praying to these saints would eventually lift the dancing curse and the people could resume their normal lives.

Dancing Mania is also synonymous with “Tarantism” in which victims believe they had been poisoned by the bite of a tarantula (which are now known to be non-poisonous). The only known antidote was to dance, which separated the venom from the blood. Others around them sometimes joined the dancing thinking that their own healed bites had been reanimated by the experience of the new victim. All would dance a “tarantella” to cure the afflicted.

There are four contemporary theories about what was really happening. The first is that a form of physical illness was affecting the dancers. The theory is that they were suffering from ergot poisoning. Ergot is caused by a fungus which invades developing kernels of rye grain under warm and wet conditions. A disease called “Convulsive Ergotism” (commonly known as “St. Anthony’s Fire”) is caused by the ingestion of rye eaten as cereal or as an ingredient of bread. LSD is also a derivative of ergot. Symptoms include a crawling sensation on the skin and vivid hallucinations. But this alone cannot explain all of the dancers’ behaviors. Other physical explanations include epilepsy, typhus, and encephalitis; but these wouldn’t occur simultaneously in a large group.

The second theory posits that the dancing was a social phenomenon resulting from the stress and tension of the Middle Ages. Certainly there were plagues, wars, religious persecutions, poverty, and natural calamities. Psychologists call this “shared stress.” The dancers were attempting to experience jubilation and visions to take their mind off their problems.

Some historians contend that the Dancing Mania was staged. Some religious cults of that time in Europe were rebelling against the Catholic Church and trying to return to ancient Roman rituals. Since the open exercise of these rituals was banned by the church, they could still be practiced without responsibility by apparent uncontrollable Dancing Mania.

The final theory is that the dancers (at least many of them) were in fact quite psychologically disturbed. It may have been the earliest observed form of mass psychogenic illness, or mass hysteria. This is where a group of people exhibit similar physical symptoms, without any known physical cause, that affect their behavior through the influence of others. But some dancers were treated brutally if they refused to join the dancing, so they did. Others may have just wanted to go along with the crowd.

Dancing Mania seems to have died out around 1650 (maybe they just didn’t have any good music to dance to). But is it really gone forever? Some contemporary behaviors exhibit similar characteristics. There are people today who see themselves as part of a unique subculture; groups whose behavior appears bizarre to the mainstream, and who may be using pharmaceuticals to trigger hallucinations. Not to mention the “shared stress” most people feel.

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