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.”
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:
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?