Did You Know: Dancing Mania

Did you know that thousands of people died because of the dancing mania and that we still don’t know what caused it?

Dancing mania was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.

It involved groups of people, sometimes thousands at a time, who danced uncontrollably and bizarrely. They would also scream, shout, and sing, and claim to have visions or hallucinations.

The mania affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion.

One of the biggest outbreaks occurred in July 1518, in Strasbourg, where a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street.

Within four days she had been joined by 33 others, and within a month there were 400, many of whom suffered heart attacks and died.

Numerous hypotheses have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania, and it remains unclear whether it was a real illness or a social phenomenon.

One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St Anthony’s Fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops.

Ergotism can cause hallucinations, but cannot account for the other strange behaviour most commonly identified with dancing mania.

Other theories suggest that the symptoms were similar to encephalitis, epilepsy, and typhus, but as with ergotism, those conditions cannot account for all symptoms.

Numerous sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods.

Hetherington and Munro describe dancing mania as a result of “shared stress”. People may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day,and in so doing, attempted to become ecstatic and see visions.

Although dancing mania was something confined to its period, some have identified modern-day activities that display some of its characteristics. Bartholomew believes that raving, an activity which became popular in the latter half of the 20th century, features characteristics of dancing mania.