How will you die? No one knows, but it’s a chapter in our lives we will all reach someday. It could be from an illness, an accident, or if you’re fortunate enough, you might pass away peacefully in your sleep, when you’re old and ready to. But what about something completely different? An unconventional death that’s out of the norm. That’s what we’ll be exploring today, in this episode of The Infographics Show: Death by Dancing.
In July 1518, the residents of the city of Strasbourg, which at that time was part of the Holy Roman Empire, were struck by a sudden, uncontrollable urge to dance. The whole episode started when a lady known as Frau Troffea went into the street and began to shake her stuff. She kept up her silent solo dancing routine for nearly a week, and as she continued to dance, her moves became infectious, with other people soon joining in. At the end of the first week, 34 others were jigging along by Troffea’s side, and it was clear the dancing was not going to stop.
The numbers quickly grew, and within a month, the dancing epidemic had claimed 400 new individuals, twisting, turning, hopping, and leaping on the Strasbourg streets. Local physicians were baffled, but they somehow came to the conclusion that the phenomenon must be due to a condition known as hot blood, and their remedy to fix this fever was more dancing. Those infected needed to shake the illness away. So a stage was constructed, professional dancers were brought in, and the town hired a band to provide backing music. But the rigorous dancing routine did nothing to cool the residents’ blood, and instead had the opposite effect. Many of the dancers collapsed from exhaustion, and some even died from stroke or heart attacks. This bizarre episode carried on into September, meaning some had danced their socks off for a full two months!
Eventually the dancers were taken away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution. It seemed only God could fix this crazy dancing disorder. The Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like an imaginary tale, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records, and surprisingly, it’s not the only case of this strange epidemic. Similar incidents took place in Germany and Switzerland, but nothing near the scale of the case at Strasbourg in 1518.
What could have led the people of Strasbourg to dance themselves to death? According to historian and Michigan State University professor, John Waller, who authored a paper on the topic, the explanation is most likely connected to St. Vitus. St Vitus was a Catholic saint, who 16th century Europeans believed had the power to curse people with this dancing plague. But it was not just the curse of the saint that set the town to jiggle; disease and famine were both prevalent in Strasbourg at the time, and the heightened anxiety of the sick individuals may have triggered the superstitious belief of the saint’s curse.
In Waller’s book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, he says: “That the event took place, is undisputed.” Waller explained that historical records documenting the deaths from the plague, such as cathedral sermons, physician notes, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council are all “unambiguous on the fact that the victims danced. These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing; although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing,” he said.
Another theory suggests that the community of dancers might have ingested ergot, a toxic fungus that grows on damp rye and causes spasms and hallucinations. The same substance used to manufacture the psychedelic drug, LSD. Waller’s theory seems believable, but then how could people dance for days when disease and famine had engulfed the town? Where did they get their energy from?
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew from Australia’s James Cook University proposed a different theory, that the dancers were performing an ecstatic ritual of a religious sect, but Waller responded, “there is no evidence that the dancers wanted to dance.” So maybe Waller was right. The death dance was a phenomenon known as “mass psychogenic illness,” a form of mass hysteria usually preceded by intolerable levels of psychological distress, that caused the dancing epidemic.
After all, according to Wikipedia, 7 other cases of the dancing plague were reported in the same region during the medieval era, and one in Madagascar in 1840. And there were also other strange plagues which back up the psychological elements of Waller’s idea, including a laughing epidemic that went on for 18 months in Tanzania.
So, death by the dancing disease, a curse from a cruel saint, or people tripping out on LSD? We may never know the truth, but dancing to your deathbed may not be the worst way to say goodbye. Can you think of any other diseases that make people behave in bizarre ways? Let us know in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video called What happens when you die? Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!