Glastonbury is this weekend and I imagine a few will suffer a modern day version of dancing sickness! What was dancing sickness? It began on June 24th, back in 1374 when people from the German city of Aachen started dancing in the street in large numbers. Sounds fun doesn’t it? But this wasn’t down to some form of celebration. The dancing was just one symptom, others included twitching and hallucinating and the cause was an outbreak of an affliction that modern scientists call choreomania.
Other names for the bizarre condition exist though, such as Dancing Plague or St. John’s Dance. The incident in Aachen Germany is just one of many reports throughout history of this strange condition. Reports go back as far as the 7th century, and interestingly the strange condition stopped occurring in 17th Century. In Aachen huge numbers danced in the streets, often screaming or chanting too. They would dance until they reached exhaustion, at which point they would collapse. Many died from cardiac arrest, whilst others would lie on the ground twitching and foaming at the mouth.
So, what caused these strange outbreaks? Well many theories exist. Often the dancing was triggered by just one person, which is what happened in Strasbourg in 1518, yet others joined in and eventually hundreds were dancing. Was it contagious? Or was it some sort of stress relief response. Many theories exist, from mass hysteria to the mass consumption of grain contaminated with ergot, a fungus which can cause hallucinations. I guess we’ll probably never know for sure.