The Dancing Plague of 1518

In July 1518, residents of the city of Strasbourg — then part of the Roman Empire — were struck by a sudden and seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance. The hysteria kicked off when a woman known as Frau Troffea stepped into the street and began to silently twist, twirl and shake. She kept up her solo dance-a-thon for nearly a week, and before long some 3 dozen others had joined in. By August, the dancing epidemic had claimed as many as 400 victims. With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians blamed it on “hot blood” and suggested that the afflicted simply gyrate the fever away. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. The town even hired a band to provide music, but it wasn’t long before the marathon started to take its toll. Many dancers collapsed from sheer exhaustion, while others died from strokes and heart attacks. The strange episode didn’t end until September, when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop to pray for absolution. What could have led people to dance themselves to death? One theory is that the dancers had accidentally ingested ergot, a toxic mold that grows on damp rye and produces spasms and hallucinations. To this day, the cause remains a mystery.