When an outbreak occurred, people took to the streets to dance uncontrollably. It was more than dancing; it was a full-out hysteria, with screaming, laughing, hallucinations, speaking in tongues, and singing.
Unlike today's penchant for lip synch dancing flash mobs, the dancing mania outbreaks of the Renaissance Era often proved fatal, with people dancing until they collapsed from exhaustion and died.
Many cases of dancing mania were associated with St. Vitus. It was originally considered by some to be part of a curse sent by the saint, an idea which spread in the Renaissance equivalent of a meme. Many processions of those afflicted with dancing mania wound their way through town to a place dedicated to St. Vitus (often a church), and outbreaks were more likely to happen during the Feast of St. Vitus (June 15th).
The Dancing Plague of 1518 is the worst recorded outbreak of dancing mania. It struck Strasbourg, France in July, and lasted for about a month. A woman named Frau Troffea became the "patient zero," when she "began to dance to dance fervently in a street." Over the course of the next month, a rolling collection of people "caught" the dancing mania and danced until they collapsed.
Mass hysteria can take many unusual forms. Contemporary Americans may be most familiar with mass hysteria from a particularly intriguing episode of "House," when House and Cuddy have to save an airplane full of people who are apparently suffering from a severe and communicable malady. Which in the end turns out to be mass hysteria, plus one guy who had the bends.
Panic and fear are communicable states, which is good from an evolutionary perspective. If two people are sitting around a fire in the darkness two million years ago and one of them gets up and runs away at high speed, it behooves the other person to do the same. Our ancestors who failed to pick up someone else's panic and fear didn't last long, as a rule.
One theory about the Dancing Plague of 1518 is that it was at least partially fueled by the dire social conditions at the time. Crushing poverty and illness made life extremely difficult, and being swept up in a collective movement can be a release from the day-to-day stresses. (See also: Sunday church, raves, Burning Man, and fad diets.)
You can imagine being desperately poor, filled with hopelessness, and then believing that you had been cursed by St. Vitus for some reason. In such cases religion serves as both the cause and the cure, because many people stopped dancing when they were taken to a place dedicated to St. Vitus and given a priest's blessing.
Mass hysteria has been blamed for many historical incidents, including religious visions, the panic that accompanied the first "War of the World" broadcast, and the witch hunts of colonial America. Episodes of mass hysteria are rarely as bizarre or as fatal as the dancing sickness, though. Despite happening many times over 300 years, with numerous written accounts, it still remains a mystery.
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