It had to have been Elmore City, Oklahoma’s worst nightmare. The town that once banned people from getting “footloose” would be horrified to learn that in 1518 people began to take to the streets, seemingly overtaken by fits of dancing.
In the city of city of Strasbourg — then part of the Holy Roman Empire — the hysteria was kicked off on July 14, 1518, when Frau Troffea stepped outside her home and, with a certain joie de vivre, treated the city to some original dance moves.
The OG dancing queen Troffea continued to whirl and twirl without rest for six days. Within a month nearly 400 people were capering about town with her, their toes tap, tap, tapping to the point of exhaustion.
The “disease” — at the time called St. John’s dance — wasn’t just contained to Strasbourg. The dancing plague spread up and down the Rhine River to cities including Liege, Utrecht, Tongres, and others in the Netherlands and Belgium, according to the Smithsonian.
“That the event took place is undisputed,” historian John Waller, author of, A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, told Discovery News.
And indeed, a plethora of historical records document the dancing, including physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council during the height of the cavorting.
All “are unambiguous on the fact that (victims) danced,” according to Waller.
Misguided and undoubtedly deeply confused town officials in Strasbourg tried to cure the outburst by hiring musicians and building a huge stage in the hopes that the mania would sputter out. The thrumming of the drums had the opposite effect, however, with many more joining the throngs of dancing men and women.
They did not, in fact, need to simply shake it off.
Modern experts still don’t agree on what caused plagues of compulsive dancing in the streets, although some point to ergot, a mold that grows on the stalks of damp rye. Ergot poisoning can trigger violent convulsions, hallucinations, and spasms.
Some, like Waller, discredit the mold theory and believe mass hysteria, created under extreme psychological duress, was the reason for the dance dance revolution.
Others speculate that the dancers were members of a religious cult. Writing in the early 1520s, humanist Hieronymus Gebwiler described the dance as God’s way of forcing modesty and moderation upon the city of Strasbourg.
Ultimately, nothing is conclusive as to what caused the intensive dance session and tragically, in the span of several weeks, dozens of citizens in the Alsatian city died of heart attacks, strokes, and from sheer exhaustion.
Maybe Elmore City had it right after all.