The dance plague in Strasbourg in 1518 started with one woman, in July. 400 citizens were infected and by the end many people, perhaps 50, had danced themselves to death. What does this epidemic tell us about bodies, minds and souls under pressure? How did unstoppable dancing make its way into stories such as The Red Shoes? Has it got anything to tell us about modern outbreaks, like Rave and Trance?
Why all this dancing?
"There's been a strange epidemic lately/Going amongst the folk/So that many in their madness/Began Dancing, Which they kept up day and night, Without interruption/Until they fell unconscious. Many have died of it."
There have been a number of outbreaks of dance mania recorded in history, right back to 1017. Centuries before Sydenham's Chorea, it was called St Vitus Dance. In Strasbourg they believed the martyr had cursed them with this dancing penance.
Can someone really dance inadvertently? And dance to the death?
Frances Byrnes visits Strasbourg, its archives (Sebastian Brant, author of Ship of Fools, chronicled the dancing) and nearby Saverne where, at the shrine to St Vitus, the crazed dancers were led through healing rituals and each given... a pair of red shoes by the clergy.
Was it really a dream? A nightmare? We have just enough information to set our imaginations loose on it, and not enough evidence to say too much for sure. We can wonder:
Was it an aberration (as nineteenth century writers) describe it? Or might compulsive dance be (still) a creative response to intolerable stress? Was it caused by famine, ergotism, St Vitus, drumming or adrenalin? What's the optimum music to get people dancing? Is dance contagious? Why are the insane depicted as rocking, stereotypically: why are fools always shown hopping and leaping? Why is death shown as dancing: and why on earth did the Council in Strasbourg hire musicians to play drums and pipes to keep the poor compulsive dancers dancing, and even build a stage for them? And aren't those the very instruments cadavers play in the Danse Macabre murals, with their incessant beat?
Frances Byrnes visits Ben Hammond, as he goes into the Guinness Book of Records for dancing longer than anyone else; Ethel Maqeda, who witnessed an outbreak of possession when she was growing up; 9 Waves dancer, Sarah Blagg, and members of Bluemouth Inc., (a theatre group who perform Dance Marathons) for their insights.
She also talks to... historians, like John Waller (Author, A Time To Dance, A Time To Die); Professor Gordon Turnbull (Author, Trauma), Psychologist, Dr Peter Lovatt, "Dr Dance"; Sophie Oosterwijk (expert on the Danse Macabre), to try to deduce what's going on.
And now: why do we dance when we are troubled? Why can't we stop dancing? Is it still possible to be so troubled our bodies will move despite us? And is dancing a sin?
Is it too fanciful to point out that the British dance booms of the last 80 years have all coincided with recession/depression? Why dance? Why not riot, occupy, scream?