The Dancing Plague: When People Danced to Their Death

In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea suddenly started to dance for no apparent reason. At the time, this was not unusual in Strasbourg because many people thought that Frau had become hysterical due to the rampant disease and famine that invaded the region. However, Frau’s was no ordinary dancing.

In the coming days, three more people joined the frenzy. They would come out on the street and start dancing uncontrollably. The urge to dance seemed so intense that these men and women would dance for hours – some even danced walking around the town. Within a month, the dancing turned into a plague. Many people hired music bands to accompany the dancers before noticing that the mysterious dance was quickly transforming into the dance of death.

In its wake, the plague consumed hundreds of people. Historians estimate that the unsatiated urge to dance took the lives of more than 400 individuals. Almost all of these dancers died due to exhaustion, thirst, and heart attacks.

There was little that one could do. Local physicians and doctors attributed the strange illness to a sort of fever. The strange phenomenon subsided as quickly as it had started. After a month or two, the dancing stopped abruptly. Interestingly, the dancing plague also appeared in parts of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland but not at the scale that was witnessed in 1518.

Historians often believe that the dancing plague was likely the result of a hysteria caused by stress and superstition. People at the time believed that a particular Catholic Saint, St. Vitus, held the power to curse people. More plausible theories suggest that dancing was a ritual performed by members of a cult. The phenomenon is also attributed to a toxic mold that produces hallucinations.

Despite the abundance of historical literature on the dancing plague of 1518, it continues to shroud in mystery to this day.