Dancing All Night, Circa 1518

In the hot summer of 1518, as many as 400 residents of Strasbourg, France were overcome with an irresistible urge to dance. According to The History Channel, “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 three-dozen other Strasbourgeois had joined in. By August, the dancing epidemic had claimed as many as 400 victims.”

dancing plague

A contemporary artist’s interpretation of the dancing plague, complete with band.

Nobody could explain it, but you can’t blame the town for not getting into the spirit of things—a band was even hired. Some of the dancers kept it up until they collapsed from sheer exhaustion, and there were multiple deaths.

Historian John Waller, author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, concludes that these folks were probably suffering from stress-induced psychosis. They’d been through a lot—war, plagues, famines, etc.

But never mind about all that. Let’s turn instead to the Holy Modal Rounders and their recording of “Spring of ’65,” on the classic Good Taste is Timeless album. The song is about a dancing plague, this one taking place in some remote American farming hamlet. Farmers leave their plows and gather to hear a fiddler play “The Crippled Kingfisher” for hours on end. The mass hysteria only lasts a day, and nobody dies, but it’s an eerie, compelling song. Here it is on video:

  I must have never checked the credits on an album I’ve owned for decades, because I thought Peter Stampfel—who sings it—also wrote it. But no. Eli Smith, who runs the estimable and just-concluded Brooklyn Folk Festival (and recorded with Stampfel), tells me the source is an unaccompanied song by J.B. Cornett, collected by New Lost City Ramblers veteran (and Smith associate) John Cohen. The original is on Mountain Music of Kentucky, and issued on Smithsonian Folkways. Stampfel takes a few liberties with the lyrics, but not that many. Here’s the video:
  All this was triggered by a brand-new song, “Mercy,” by a group called Petunia. The accompanying video documents just such a dancing plague, inspired by the events of 1518. The costumes look more like 1818, but never mind. Here’s Petunia:
  The History Channel again: “The Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like the stuff of legend, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records. It’s also not the only known incident of its kind. Similar manias took place in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though few were as large—or deadly—as the one triggered in 1518.”

Did I mention that “Mercy” is a great song, even if it’s not obviously about dancing plagues? Petunia has a bright future.

So what’s our modern equivalent of dancing plagues? The disco era? Studio 54?

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