The real-life history behind Dance to the Bone


Strasbourg, 1518. A mysterious and occasionally deadly fever which forces those infected to dance, grips the streets of the city. 500 years later in South Wales, the fever has returned. Joanne Bevan, a lonely and frustrated call centre worker, finds herself disconnected from her family, her community and her own body.

One day she is visited by St Vitus, the Patron Saint of dancing, who invites her to dance away her problems. But what happens if she’s forgotten how to dance? What happens if she can’t stop? What happens if the fever spreads?

Over 500 years ago a strange mania seized the city of Strasbourg. Citizens by the hundred became compelled to dance, seemingly for no reason — jigging trance-like for days until they were unconscious or, in some cases, died.

What were these ‘dancing plagues’? What caused them? Were they real diseases or just imagined?

In July 1518, a woman whose name was given as Frau Troffea stepped into the street and began dancing. She seemed unable to stop, and she kept dancing until she collapsed from exhaustion.

Within a week, 34 people had joined her; by the end of the month, 400. At the height of the dancing mania, 15 residents were dying each day from strokes, heart attacks, and sheer exhaustion. They kept going long past the point of injury. City authorities were alarmed by the ever-increasing number of dancers.

Frau Troffea was possessed for between four and six days, at which point the local authorities intervened by sending her in a wagon thirty miles away to Saverne. There she might be cured at the shrine of Vitus, the saint who it was believed had cursed her. But some of those who had witnessed her strange performance had begun to mimic her, and within days more than thirty ‘choreomaniacs’ as they have become known, were in motion, some so severely that only death would stop them.

To stop the dancing, town officials tried to cure the outburst by hiring musicians and building a huge stage in the hope that the mania would soon burn out. Unfortunately, they simply encouraged more people to join the craze with as many as 400 people eventually consumed by the dancing compulsion. Several of them died from their exertions. Frau Troffea had been cured by a trip to the shrine of St Vitus, so this was tried with other victims. Once there, Priests placed them, presumably still ‘dancing’, underneath a wooden carving of Vitus. They put small crosses in their hands and red shoes on their feet. On the soles and tops of these shoes, they sprinkled holy water and painted crosses of consecrated oil.

In early September the mania began to abate, but it lasted well over six weeks, with four weeks at its height, consuming the town. On the worst days, as many as fifteen people were dying each day. The final toll is unknown but, if such a daily death rate was true, could have been into the hundreds.

This outbreak became known as the ‘dancing summer’. It wasn’t the first, or last, of these dancing afflictions – they had also happened in the Rhine and Moselle regions on numerous occasions since the 14th century. However, this was the most fatal and most well documented.

One seventeenth-century chronicle by the Strasbourg jurist Johann Schilter quotes a now lost manuscript poem:
Many hundreds in Strasburg began
To dance and hop, women and men,
In the public market, in alleys and streets,
Day and night; and many of them ate nothing
Until at last the sickness left them.
This affliction was called St Vitus’ dance.

(Quoted in Louis Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, 1952)

Another chronicle from 1636 relates a less happy ending:
‘In the year 1518 AD … there occurred among men a remarkable and terrible disease called St Vitus’ dance, in which men in their madness began to dance day and night until finally they fell down unconscious and succumbed to death.’

There were lots of accounts then of what happened. But what about why it happened? There are many theories, from demonic possession to mushrooms.

These ‘dancing plagues’ are commonly associated with ‘St Vitus Dance’ also known as ‘Sydenham chorea’, ‘chorea minor’, ‘infectious chorea’ or ‘rheumatic chorea’… all essentially a way of categorising this seemingly involuntary, unstoppable, and somewhat infectious dancing. We now know that the effects of this disorder include not just ‘dancing’ but a range of symptoms. The ‘dancing’ reported, if it was St Vitus dance or Sydenham chorea, was involuntary spasms of the body, possibly with speech also affected. The ‘mass hysteria’ associated with these events might also have been because of this condition. In fact, all these symptoms can be traced to rheumatic fever.

At the time of the 1518 plague, St Vitus was blamed in part due to the fear that he caused the sickness, and the belief that taking the afflicted to his shrine was a cure. Not all the afflicted might have been caused by St Vitus Dance or Sydenham chorea, however.

Although many theories had focused on poisoning or potential drug use, historian John Waller explains it was their situation that led them there. The plagues of other areas, failed crops, other disease outbreaks and, finally, people being extremely suggestible in times of stress. Because the people believed in the vengefulness of St Vitus, individually and then as a crowd, they made it happen. Obviously, an element of mass hysteria also came into play. But really, Waller puts it, the stress of life led them to believe in it so much that it happened. The suffering manifested as hysterical dancing because the citizens believed it could.

Of course, the dancing plagues have another parallel — modern rave culture. Though usually without the bloody feet and pleas for mercy of our sixteenth century ‘choreomaniacs’, and often with a little chemical help, it is not uncommon for partygoers to dance for days with little break, forgoing sleep and food, sometimes shifting their feet with poise and balance, and sometimes leaping with none.

In fact, we can see many parallels across history for if not the medical afflictions that caused these ‘dancing plagues’ then the psychological, even primal elements that inspired, even compelled people to dance until they drop. We see this across history – the Maenads of ancient Greece also known as the Bacchae in Roman mythology, whose name literally translates as ‘raving ones’. They followed Dionysus (god of theatre, among other things) in a state of ecstatic frenzy of dancing and intoxication. They became also known as ‘mad women’ and as with Frau Troffea, why is it always the stories of ‘mad women’ that endure in history? And what would such dancing-hysteria look like today… and what might we label it as?

Dance to the Bone tells Joanne’s story through a beautiful and beguiling mix of new writing, live music, and dance, creating a transcendent night at the theatre. Unnerving and uplifting in equal measure, Dance to the Bone prompts a conversation about the impact of human connections and celebrates the wildness within ourselves.

Article by Dr Emily Garside

Dr Emily Garside

By using our website you are consenting to our use of cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy.