You may have heard of shopping til you drop, but what about dancing til you drop? During the summer of 1518, a small town in modern-day France did just that. From July to late August, the community of Strasbourg was compelled to dance and twist through the city streets during the summer heat. This took a toll on the tangoing victims, leading many to succumb to death from extreme exhaustion. Around 400 people were left dancing until they died. This unbelievable event has left many wondering: how did it happen?
Many first-hand reports of the mind-bending event say sufferers were cursed to dance, while local physicians pointed towards a more medical explanation. At the time, belief in the humoral system of medicine was standard practice. In this theory, the body was made up of four humors; blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. If one humor fell out of balance, a person would become ill. During the Dancing Plague, an imbalance in the blood humor, or “hot blood,” was blamed for the never-ending tango. However, this was not the true root of the problem.
Modern historians theorize that the actual cause was a fungus called ergot. It commonly grows on rye and can easily infect a town’s fields during a rainy season. It’s rarely noticeable on plants, and accidental consumption leads to disastrous consequences. Ergot can behave similarly to LSD, leading to powerful hallucinations and mind altering effects. This little fungus is also often credited with helping support ideas of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. During the Dancing Plague, historians theorize ergot may have played a role in creating a compulsion to dance, while mind-altering effects created an extreme “group think” mentality.
As with many wild stories in history, the whole truth will never be completely revealed. But this crazy tale allows modern eyes to theorize about what happened in that summer of 1518.