Dancing today is an artistic form of expression, a mode of entertainment or even a form of exercise. However, there was once a group of people that turned dance into quite a deadly activity.
This happened in July 1518 when residents of the city of Strasbourg were struck by a sudden and seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance. The plague started when a woman known as Frau Troffea stepped into the street and began to silently twist, twirl and shake.
She continued this lone and silent dancing for nearly a week, and it wasn’t too long before over 20 other people had joined in. By August, over 400 people had been infected by the dancing epidemic.
With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians blamed it on “hot blood” and suggested the afflicted simply gyrate the fever away. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in.
The town even hired a band to provide backing music, but it wasn’t long before the marathon started to take its toll. Many dancers collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
Some even died from strokes and heart attacks. The strange episode didn’t end until September when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.
The Strasbourg dancing plague might sound unbelievable, but it’s well documented in 16th-century historical records. It’s also not the only known incident of its kind.
Similar events took place in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though few were as large—or deadly—like the one triggered in 1518.
People have continued to debate what could have led people to dance themselves to death. Some speculate that it had to do with St. Vitus, a Catholic saint who 16th century Europeans believed had the power to curse people with a dancing plague.
Other theories have suggested the dancers were members of a religious cult, or even that they accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mould that grows on damp rye and produces spasms and hallucinations.
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