Shall We Dance?
Once upon a time, there was a king who had twelve beautiful daughters. They slept in twelve beds in a single room and when they went to bed, the doors were locked. However, every morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been danced in all night. So the king made it known that if any person could discover the secret of where the princesses danced, he could have his favorite for a wife and reign after the old king’s death. Many tried and failed, until there came a soldier. Before beginning his surveillance, he met with an old woman who gave him a cloak of invisibility and told him not to drink the wine one of the princesses would bring him. The soldier was placed in the room next to the princesses, where he pretended to sleep.
When they thought him sound asleep, the princesses activated a secret door in the floor of their chamber and descended into a magical land where they met twelve princes. The princes rowed the princesses across a lake to a fine castle where they danced until early morning. In his invisible cloak, the soldier watched all this gaiety, then crept back to his room to again feign sleep. The following day he presented the king with tokens gathered during the nighttime sojourn, claimed the eldest princess for his bride and eventually became king. [Condensed from The Twelve Dancing Princesses]
Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.
In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire) were struck by a sudden and apparently uncontrollable urge to dance. It all began with a woman named Frau Troffea, who stepped into the street and began to twist, twirl and shake. She danced alone for nearly a week, but was eventually joined by more than 400 back-up dancers. During August of that year, many participants collapsed from exhaustion, died from strokes or succumbed to heart attacks. The strange dance mania didn’t end until September, when the remaining dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine for absolution.
The Strasbourg dancing plague may sound like the stuff of legends, but it is not the only known incident of its kind. Similar incidents of choreomania, St. John’s Dance or St. Vitus’s Dance occurred in Switzerland, Germany and Holland. All presentations involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. However, few were as deadly as the one triggered in 1518, when people literally danced themselves to death.
What could have led people to a disco demise? According to historian John Waller, the explanation most likely concerns St. Vitus, a Catholic saint who pious Europeans believed had the power to curse people with a dancing plague. When combined with the horrors of disease and famine, both of which were tearing through Strasbourg in 1518, the St. Vitus superstition may have triggered a stress-induced hysteria (mass hysteria, code F44.9) that took hold of much of the city. Other theories have suggested the dancers were members of a religious cult, or even that they accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mold that grows on damp rye and produces spasms and hallucinations similar to LSD (code T64.81XA, Toxic effect of other mycotoxin food contaminants, accidental, initial encounter).
It is important to understand that this maniacal boogying really did happen. Historical records documenting the dancing deaths, such as physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the jitterbugging rage, all verify that the victims danced. And really danced – not just trembling, shuffling, shaking or convulsing, but moving as if purposefully dancing, albeit while spellbound.
It was a superstitious time, and it’s possible that people didn’t have much left in their lives but superstition. Eventually, bit by bit, the dancers stopped, ending the fatal tango as mysteriously as it began.