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The Dancing Plague Has Got to be the Weirdest Outbreak Ever Experienced

From the 12th century through the 16th century, Europe suffered through bouts of the Dancing Plague, where people danced until they died.

Right now, the world is undergoing a coronavirus pandemic, killing thousands. However, it is far from the only one. The winner for the weirdest outbreak to strike mankind has got to be the Dancing Plague.

Victims of the Dancing Plague began to dance, twitching and flailing their arms, and they continued until they dropped from exhaustion, or suffered heart attacks or strokes, and died.

The earliest known outbreak of Dancing Plague occurred during the 7th century, and it reappeared sometime during the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. Additional outbreaks occurred during the 13th century, and in one instance in 1237, a group of children danced continuously while traveling between the towns of Erfurt and Arnstadt, Germany, a distance of 12 miles (20 km).

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In 1278, 200 people began dancing on a bridge over the River Meuse in Germany, causing the bridge to collapse. Between 1373 and 1374, outbreaks of the Dancing Plague were reported in England, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

The most famous outbreak of Dancing Plague occurred in July 1518 in Strasbourg, France when a woman named Frau Troffea began dancing in the street. She kept on dancing night and day, and within four days, she was accompanied by 33 others. Within a month there were 400 dancers.

Dancing Plague of 1518
Dancing Plague of 1518, Source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder/Wikimedia Commons

Believing the Dancing Plague to be caused by "hot blood", Strasbourg authorities opened two guildhalls and a grain market to accommodate the dancers, and they even constructed a wooden stage and hired musicians for them.

Historical documents including notes by the Strasbourg City Council, physician's notes, religious sermons, and local and regional chronicles showed that by August 1518, many of the dancers had died. By September, the town hauled the remaining dancers to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.

What caused the Dancing Plague?

Historian John Waller thinks the plague was stress-induced hysteria due to bouts of disease and famine in the various areas.

A different explanation is that the dancers ingested rye ergot, a mold that grows on damp rye stalks, and guess what it contains — LSD. Ergotamine is a psychoactive product of ergot fungi, and it is structurally similar to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25). However, an acid trip usually lasts for less than 24 hours, and that doesn't explain why the dancers continued to dance for weeks at a time.

The medical term chorea, which is Greek for "to dance", describes abnormal, involuntary movement of the hands or feet that resembles dancing. Chorea is one of a group of neurological disorders called dyskinesias.

Further incidents of Dancing Plague occurred during the 16th century in Basel, Switzerland. From 1973 to 1978, there were six outbreaks of a kind of Dancing Plague in factories located in Singapore. Factory workers' symptoms included screaming, trance states, and unprecedented levels of fear.

The most notable recent case of Dancing Plague occurred in 2011 at the Le Roy Junior-Senior High School in upstate New York. There, 12 teenage girls began twitching as though they had Tourette syndrome. Authorities ruled out all possible sources of infection or poisoning and concluded that it was due to mass hysteria, also known as mass psychogenic illness.

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