Dance of Death: Giselle And The Real-Life “Dancing Plague”


In Giselle (opening Saturday, January 25 at SF Ballet), an innocent peasant girl is summoned by the spirit world to join the “Wilis”: an all-female band of ghosts (pictured) who fly through the dark forests, forcing young men to dance themselves to death.

But offstage, did you know that almost 500 years ago, a whole town really was overcome with a “Dancing Plague” that saw people literally dropping dead from dancing?

Beware Wilis: San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Giselle (© Erik Tomasson)

Beware Wilis: San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Giselle (© Erik Tomasson)

The Outbreak

In the summer of 1518, a Strasbourg woman named Frau Troffea was reported to have begun dancing intensely in the street, and refused to stop even as the hours became days. Within a week, one hundred people had been overcome by the same compulsion to dance and after a month, 400 townspeople found themselves obsessively dancing themselves into miserable exhaustion, without any obvious explanation for their actions.

What this dancing epidemic could have looked like, sort of (Peasant Wedding Dance, Pieter Brueghel the Younger)

Peasant Wedding Dance, Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Bizarrely, the authorities in Strasbourg encouraged the dancers by moving them into special halls and hiring musicians to accompany them with drums and pipes in the belief that those afflicted would only recover  by continuing to dance. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before deaths ensued, as dancers collapsed and died from heart attacks and sheer exhaustion. The “epidemic” eventually subsided after a few weeks, but what caused these people to dance themselves into an early grave?


Possible Explanations

We can’t blame ghostly Wilis for this one, and rational explanations across the years have included drugging (psychotropic mold growing on stalks of rye that people accidentally ingested), cult involvement and, most plausibly, mass hysteria. The  so-called Dancing Plague of 1518 wasn’t even the first time this kind of outbreak had occurred in this part of Europe, with cases stretching back to the late 1300s.

Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. An engraving by Hendrick Hondius (1642) after a drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1564).

Dancing mania on a pilgrimage to the church at Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. An engraving by Hendrick Hondius (1642) after a drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1564).

Author John Waller suggests in his book A Time To Dance: A Time To Die that the Strasbourg dancers and those before them were in fact in a trance-like state, which allowed them to continue dancing despite their lethal exhaustion. He blames the contemporary belief in the powers of St. Vitus (the patron saint of epileptics) who was believed to take over people’s minds and inflict a terrible, compulsive dance.  Already under psychological strain from the deathly famine and disease that commonplace in Europe during this period, claims Waller, people’s fear of such a curse caused them to genuinely believe they had  been possessed and induce themselves into a trance that saw them dance wildly for days on end.

These instances of dancing mania eventually died out in Europe, but not before the outbreaks had claimed many lives. Click here to read more about the phenomenon, and enjoy Giselle (safely) from January 24 through February 2! 

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One Comment

  1. avatar Ruth Vallejos
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    This sort of puts a different slant on Gene Kelly’s siren call: “Gotta Dance! Gotta dance, GOT-TA DANCE!” Shee!

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