Dancing mania

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Dancing mania (or choreomania,[1] from the Greek: χορεία (khoreia = 'dance') + μανία (mania = 'madness’)) was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries; it involved groups of people, sometimes thousands at a time, who danced uncontrollably and bizarrely, seemingly possessed by the devil. Men, women, and children would dance through the streets of towns or cities, sometimes foaming at the mouth until they collapsed from fatigue.

One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, Germany, on June 24, 1374; the populace danced wildly through the streets, screaming of visions and hallucinations, and even continued to writhe and twist after they were too exhausted to stand.[citation needed] The dancing mania quickly spread throughout Europe, said to be "propagated in epidemic fashion by sight" by Dr. Justus Hecker.[2]

Having occurred to thousands of people across several centuries, dancing mania was not a local event, and was, therefore, well-documented in contemporary writings. More outbreaks were reported in the Netherlands, Cologne, Metz, and later Strasbourg (Dancing Plague of 1518), apparently following pilgrimage routes.[3]


[edit] St. John's Dance

St. John's Dance (known as Johannistanz or Johannestanz in Germany) was the medieval name for a phenomenon which emerged during the time of the Black Death. The medical term is chorea imagnativa aestimative. Basically, it is a form of apraxia expressing itself as "dancing rage," as uncontrolled ecstatic body movements. In the eyes of the church, those suffering from St. John's Dance were possessed by the devil.

[edit] Contemporary cures

During the initial outbreaks of the mania, religious ceremonies were held in an attempt to exorcise the demons thought to be causing the mania. People commonly prayed to St. Vitus for aid, and he soon became the patron saint of the dancers. The phrase "St. Vitus' Dance", however, is in fact a name given to a syndrome known as Sydenham's chorea, which is totally unrelated to manic dancing.

Dancers would often also be accompanied by musicians. It was believed at the time that the order of music could heal both body and soul. Scholars such as Adam Milligan touted music as a cure for the ailments of society as well, imbuing it with the power to restrain social vices. Dancing mania would often thus be "treated" by playing music in an attempt to control the erratic spasms and gyrations of the dancers. Epileptic seizures were treated in a similar way at the time.

Justus Hecker (1795-1850), whose work Epidemics of the Middle Ages compiled many accounts, describes:

A convulsion infuriated the human frame....Entire communities of people would join hands, dance, leap, scream, and shake for hours....Music appeared to be the only means of combating the strange epidemic...lively, shrill tunes, played on trumpets and fifes, excited the dancers; soft, calm harmonies, graduated from fast to slow, high to low, prove efficacious for the cure.[4]

[edit] Scientific explanations

Although no real consensus exists as to what caused the mania, some cases, especially the one in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), may have had an explicable physical cause. The symptoms of the sufferers can be attributed to ergot poisoning, or ergotism, known in the Middle Ages as "St. Anthony's Fire". It is caused by eating rye infected with Claviceps purpurea, a small fungus that contains toxic and psychoactive chemicals (alkaloids), including lysergic acid and ergotamine (used in modern times as a precursor in the synthesis of LSD). Symptoms of ergot poisoning include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene; some dancers claimed to have experienced visions of a religious nature.

Ergotism can easily be fatal; indeed fatalities amongst dancers are described in the early 17th century Strasbourg Chronicle of Kleinkawel. Ironically, if this was the cause of the dancing mania, then the contemporary cure of playing music to the dancers would only have prolonged their mania by stimulating further convulsions and hallucinations.

However, ergotism causes its victims to have visions, not to dance. The fact that large numbers of people were afflicted in mass outbursts that lasted for a few days or weeks at a time suggests that the cause of the dancing-mania phenomenon is more likely to be social than physical; that these events were episodes of mass psychogenic illness, more popularly known as mass hysteria. A similar incident in the 20th century was the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic.

[edit] Cultural impact

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ a b c O'Neill, Daniel (Fall 2005). "Etiology of the Dancing Plague" (PDF). InterCulture: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University) 2 (3): pp. 1, 7–12. http://interculture.fsu.edu/pdfs/oneill%20dancing%20plague.pdf. Retrieved on 2008-08-08. 
  2. ^ Rust, Frances (1999). Dance in Society. Routledge. p. 19. ISBN 041517824X. http://books.google.com/books?id=-SQmlvqvRYUC&printsec=frontcover#PPA19,M1. Retrieved on 2008-06-25. 
  3. ^ Rust, pp. 19-20
  4. ^ Sear, H. G. (1939). "Music and Medicine", p.45, Music & Letters, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Jan., 1939), pp. 43-54.

[edit] Bibliography

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