It’s prom season here in the great state of Missouri. Every Saturday night from now until early May, dinner out at any local chain restaurant in the area (McDonald’s included) will come with a red carpet-worthy display of colorful chiffon and smart waistcoats.
I kind of love it. Even though I’d rather muck out horse stalls with a pair of chopsticks than watch the Oscars, I do enjoy seeing people dressed up in their finest frills. Since my own children aren’t old enough to participate in that grand old tradition yet, I soak up the images of the overly fancy diners and photos of my friends’ teenage kids posted on social media, with the advantage that I don’t have to be the one up all night worried that they’re not making good choices.
I do hope they all have a wonderful time, that they make it home safe with their hearts and their dignities intact, and that they dance their socks off. Because they have a fair amount of pressure and angst in their lives and most of them could use a night of cutting loose on the dance floor to work some of that out of their systems.
Just maybe, on a larger and more tragic scale, that’s what it was all about on a steamy July day in 1518, when Frau Troffea of Strasbourg in Alsace began to dance. She did so in the middle of the street, to a tune that played only in her head, without explanation or regard for anyone who might be watching. She simply danced.
And she didn’t stop.
After a few days, people began to join her. Within a week, thirty-four dancers had danced into the danger zone on the streets of Strasbourg. A month later the crowd had swelled to four hundred, still without any logical explanation.
Absent any better ideas, the authorities directed the building of a stage and enlisted the services of local musicians to provide an environment suitable for those getting’ jiggy with it to work the jiggy out of their systems.
Eventually, and after a large number of the afflicted dropped dead from sheer exhaustion, the massive, spontaneous flash mob stopped.
We know of Frau Troffeau from the writings of Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim (whose historical stage name is Paracelsus). He arrived in Strasbourg a few years after the event with an eye to establishing a medical practice there. Paracelsus believed that the epidemic most likely stemmed from the vengefulness of unhappy wives, citing Herr Troffea, who allegedly hated nothing more than his wife’s dancing.
And while Paracelsus’s explanation probably seems as strange as the dance epidemic itself, historians and physicians today don’t have much to offer as a better explanation. One prevalent theory is that the symptoms were caused by Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that infects rye and other grains, served as the basis for the development of LSD, and has been known to cause people to go a little loopy.
But another maybe plausible suggestion is that this was a social psychological disorder stemming from the trauma of living in a time of frequent plague, natural disaster, and generally poor living conditions. I guess I sort of get that. Like Meghan Trainor, I feel better when I’m dancin.’
The citizens of Strasbourg weren’t the only victims of this most unusual epidemic, either. From the eleventh century to the middle of the seventeenth, numerous accounts of similar incidents pop up throughout Europe. Most of these are well documented. This actually happened. A lot of people really did dance themselves to death. And then it just stopped.
But all things considered, maybe in the Middle Ages that wasn’t such a bad way to go. Dancing can definitely be therapeutic, as can getting dressed up in your fanciest duds and going out to dinner with your friends. So have fun, kids.
Just remember to stop before you drop.