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Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, a 1642 engraving by Hendrick Hondius after a 1564 drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dancing mania (also known as dancing plague, choreomania, St. John’s Dance and St. Vitus’s Dance) was a social phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. It involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, in the Holy Roman Empire, in 1374, and it quickly spread throughout Europe; one particularly notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518, also in the Holy Roman Empire.

Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, dancing mania was not an isolated event, and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork. Generally, musicians accompanied dancers, to help ward off the mania, but this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging more to join in. There is no consensus among modern-day scholars as to the cause of dancing mania.[1]

The several theories proposed range from religious cults being behind the processions to people dancing to relieve themselves of stress and put the poverty of the period out of their minds. It is speculated to have been a mass hysteria, in which physical symptoms with no known physical cause are observed to affect a group of people, as a form of social influence.[1]

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Bibliography


Sirois, F. (1982). Perspectives on Epidemic Hysteria. In M. J. Colligan, J. W. Pennebaker, & L. R. Murphy (Eds.), Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis (pp. 217–236). Erlbaum.