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The Dancing Plague of 1518, or Dance Epidemic of 1518, was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (modern-day France), in the Holy Roman Empire from July 1518 to September 1518. Somewhere between 50 and 400 people took to dancing for weeks. There are many theories behind the phenomenon, the most popular being stress-induced mass hysteria, suggested by John Waller. Other theories include ergot and religious explanations. The Dancing Plague of 1518, despite happening around 500 years ago and being relatively very small-scale, has pop culture mentions and is still talked about in recent days due to its novelty.


The outbreak began in July 1518 when a woman by the name of Frau Troffea began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. Troffea kept up this constant dancing for a week straight. Soon, three dozen others joined in on the dancing chaos. In August of the same year, the Dancing Plague had claimed 400 victims. Dancers were beginning to collapse. It is said some even died due to stroke or heart attack. No one knew what was causing this reaction, which meant no one understood how to remedy this situation either. By early September, the outbreak began to subside, as the dancers were sent to a mountain shrine to pray for absolution.

Historical documents, including "physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council" are clear that the victims danced; it is not known why. Historical sources agree that there was an outbreak of dancing after a single woman started dancing, and the dancing did not seem to die down. It lasted for such a long time that it even attracted the attention of the authorities; until the council gave up authority to the physicians, who prescribed the afflicted to "dance themselves free of it." There are claims that guild halls were refurbished to accommodate the dancing, as well as musicians and strong people to help keep those dealing with the dancing mania to stay upright. This backfired, and the council was forced to ban public dancing as people danced in fear it was a punishment from Saint Vitus; and to be "free of sin" many joined in on the dancing epidemic. The council went as far as to ban music, as well. Those who danced were then ordered to go to the shrine of Saint Vitus, wore red shoes that were sprinkled with holy water and had painted crosses on the tops and soles. They also had to hold small crosses in their hands; and incense and Latin incantations were part of this "ritual." Apparently "forgiven by Vitus," word was spread of a successful ritual and the Dancing Plague had ended.

Events similar to this are said to have occurred throughout the medieval age including 11th century in Kölbigk, Saxony, where it was believed to be the result of demonic possession or divine judgment. In 15th century Apulia, Italy, a woman was bitten by a tarantula, the venom making her dance convulsively. The only way to cure the bite was to "shimmy" and to have the right sort of music available, which was an accepted remedy by scholars like Athanasius Kircher.

Contemporaneous explanations included demonic possession and overheated blood.

Veracity of deaths

Controversy exists over whether people ultimately danced to their deaths. Some sources claim that for a period the plague killed around fifteen people per day, but the sources of the city of Strasbourg at the time of the events did not mention the number of deaths, or even if there were fatalities. There do not appear to be any sources related to the events that make note of any fatalities. Ned Pennant-Rea also claims that the final death toll is not known, but if the claims of fifteen people dying per day were true then the toll could be "into the hundreds."

The main source for the claim is John Waller, who has written several journal articles on the subject and the book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518. The sources cited by Waller that mention deaths were all from later accounts of the events. There is also uncertainty around the identity of the initial dancer (either an unnamed woman or "Frau Troffea") and the number of dancers involved (somewhere between 50 and 400). Of the six chronicle accounts, four support Lady Troffea as the first dancer.

Modern theories

Food poisoning

Some believe the dancing could have been brought on by food poisoning caused by the toxic and psychoactive chemical products of ergot fungi (ergotism), which grows commonly on grains (such as rye) used for baking bread. The same fungus has also been implicated in other major historical anomalies, including the Salem witch trials.

Stress-induced mass hysteria

This could have been an example of fully developed cases of psychogenic movement disorder happening in mass hysteria or mass psychogenic illness, which involves many individuals suddenly exhibiting the same bizarre behavior. The behavior spreads rapidly and broadly in an epidemic pattern. This kind of comportment could have been caused by elevated levels of psychological stress, caused by the ruthless years (even by the rough standards of the early modern period) the people of Alsace were suffering.

Religious explanations

The Middle ages was a time when religion was incredibly important to all and helped explain things the people could not understand. One story that illustrates this idea well comes from Kölbigk Germany in 1021. It was Christmas eve and eighteen individuals had been overcome with dancing. They caused such a disturbance that the priest was unable to go through with Mass. Because of their disturbance, the priest allegedly cursed the individuals to dance continuously for a whole year as punishment. According to the story, the individuals who were caught up in a “ring dance of sin” did not stop dancing until the following Christmas. Allegedly, after the people stopped dancing they were exhausted and begged for forgiveness. After this, they fell asleep and some never woke up and died. Although the specifics of this event are most likely untrue, there is a lot of knowledge to gain from this story and the many others like it that exist. Up until 1518, it was believed by most that the job of curing those who suffered from a dancing plague belonged to the church alone. This insinuates that for a long period of time, this plague was not even considered to have been a medical condition or issue but instead, was a divine punishment. Further evidence for this comes from linguistics of the medieval ages. In writings from these times, the word plague is not used to describe these epidemics. Instead, they are referred to as curses.  

Pop culture and media

The event inspired the 2022 choral song "Choreomania" by Florence and the Machine. It was the third track on the album Dance Fever, which took its title from the song.

The book series "A Collection of Utter Speculation" released a title "The Dancing Plague: A Collection of Utter Speculation" in 2022. It is a fictional account about the events that happened in Strasbourg.

The 2023 novel, The Dance Tree, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a fictionalized version of the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Epidemia de baile de 1518 para niños

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