Perhaps the strangest plague of them all is dancing mania, which mainly broke out in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. The outbreak has been documented and known to have affected thousands of people of all ages. Those who are infected with the mysterious disease are overcome with an urge to start dancing, keep on dancing, and never stop dancing! They can dance for several days in a row (sometimes weeks, even months!) until eventually dying from exhaustion, starvation, dehydration — sometimes heart attacks and broken bones.
The first known outbreak appeared all the way back in the 7th century. The plague gained momentum by the 14th century, and continued virouciously spreading until the 17th century. From then on, the disease suddenly disappeared, without ever finding a cure. Modern doctors are perplexed by this strange disorder and struggle to understand what is was, how it affected people, and why it no longer exists.
The most popular dancing mania incident happened in 1518, when a woman started dancing in the street and others gradually joined in, eventually reaching 400 people. Most of them danced until they literally collapsed.
Most cases happened in small groups, sometimes even solo. The disease is not always deadly: for some of the victims, they faced an annual infection. There are cases of people who forced themselves to participate in the dancing mania on St. Vigil’s Day for twenty, thirty years straight.
In some cases, the condition went beyond dancing and turned into jumping and leaping around, singing loudly, crying and screaming, and engaging in inappropriate behavior with one another — causing great commotion and disturbance to the residents. Often, those infected were foreigners from out of town, yet not always.
As with most diseases during this time period, cause was thought to be due to by evil spirits or demons. Many specifically blamed it on St. Vitus or St. John the Baptist. There is a pattern of outbreaks happening at sacred sites dedicated to that saint, or around the time of the feast of St. Vitus. Treatment typically involved praying to the saint, isolating the patient, and/or performing an exorcism.
Today, the cause of dancing mania remains debatable. Some connect it to other known health issues such as epilepsy or ergot poisoning, however these theories only account for some, not ALL, symptoms. Others say that it is not an actual disease, but a social phenomenon, or maybe due to stress and tension, or possibly a staged ritual for religious purposes. There are many possibilities…
The most notable trait of dancing mania is how the dancer falls into an unconscious trance. And even if they consciously decide to join in, they still end up losing total control. Dancers who reach a trance will “see visions” and experience hallucinations. Some reach a total state of complete, absolute ecstacy.
Dancing mania is an intriguing phenomenon — weird to think that it was a real plague. I wonder what the reason is for its sudden, random disappearance after affecting people for centuries. Who knew dancing could be so dangerous…