In the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor asked Edna Morton Sewell Deane to dance with him, nine times at a single ball held at Ascot, in Berkshire, in England.
It was such a talked about event that Herbert ‘Bertie’ Farjeon wrote a song about it, with the convoluted title ‘I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales’.
After you’ve spent a moment working that out a little, you’ll realize that the future Edward VIII and the then current Edna Deane, winner of the British and world ballroom dancing championship, both loved to dance an awful lot.
Dancing, for them, was a compulsion.
As it was for the pirouetting peasants of the German town of Bernburg in the eleventh century, who were compelled to dance outside a church during the Christmas Eve service, so angering the congregation that they had them moved on with little empathy and certainly no Christmas pudding.
But, Edward and Edna’s dancing decision was something they could control, at least for the most part, although Edward, known as David to his familiars, was said to have been ‘entranced’ with Deane to a degree of infatuation that would've given his parents King George V and Queen Mary shivers down their haughty spines.
The Bernburg affair, however, was different.
As was the 1237 chasséing children phenomenon, when a large group of youngsters danced and jumped uncontrollably and wide-eyed for more than twenty kilometres from Erfurt to Arnstadt, their story immortalized perhaps in the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which swapped children for rats to add a positive and salient plague-riddening spin to the narrative.
Dancing on a bridge proved even more enticing for the two-hundred compulsive dancers on the River Meuse, who danced their way halfway across before it collapsed under their weight, and carried the unfortunates thrashing, gasping, and foxtrotting all the way through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, before dumping them into the North Sea. Survivors dragged up the picturesque banks to safety were treated at a nearby church, dedicated to the Christian martyr Saint Vitus, who, having been dead for a thousand years, gave his name to the involuntary phenomenon without protest.
From then on, the dancing plague caught on.
Rather like a flash mob today, or maybe yesterday, as they’re wonderful spreaders of the global Covid pandemic, people were taken by an invisible desire to dance themselves silly in groups. But unlike office parties, where the dancing is predicated on alcohol consumption, and weddings, where it's perpetrated by old people giddy with the false comfort that they’ll be viewed as charming, the cause of the dance plague was beyond the understanding of anyone.
In fact, in many cases, the cure for the dancing plague was thought to be music, and so musicians would often accompany manic dancers through the streets in the misguided and convoluted notion that they were actually helping to stop the craziness.
Which they weren't, of course.
As the good people of Aachen in Germany, in 1374, who began spontaneously lock-stepping from Lontzen to Luxembourg, flossing from Flanders to Franconia, and telemarking in Tongeren, could attest. This was followed by manic mincing across mainland Europe, with monks mortally moonwalking in Schaffhausen, and Swiss misses feather-stepping frantically in Zurich.
Essentially, wherever there was the chance to dance like a lunatic in the streets, people of Medieval Europe embraced the opportunity with glee.
As did a woman in Strasbourg, in Alsace, in 1518, who began dancing one day, and never stopped. Why she started, no-one knows, but why she stopped, we do. The dance, which had no name and no purpose, gathered momentum quickly, with almost four-hundred dancers joining her. They ball-changed and box-stepped, enchufla’d and gancho’d, before many of them dropped dead of ecstatic exhaustion.
Eye witnesses were bemused by these antics, which included jumping around animalistically, hopping about as if wounded, leaping from place to place like a frog, whirling Sufi-like, flinging oneself on the floor, engaging in spontaneous and random sexual intercourse, screaming, laughing, or crying, and generally scaring passersby half to death. Being beaten into joining the dance, or catching a bit of plague took care of the other half.
Subsequently, scholars have proffered all sorts of reasons for the phenomenon, from tarantula or scorpion poisoning, to alkaloidal fungi ingesting, which resulted in Ergotism or St Anthony’s Fire. Some believe religious cults may have organised the dances as mass rituals to encourage membership, or to expel bad spirits from whole communities, others believe typhus could’ve caused it, while some think a shared or common stress may have been the root of the temporary lunacy.
And, there’s also the astronomical idea that certain constellation combinations or planetary appearances, or shooting stars or falling meteorites, triggered a notion that if the world was to end, dancing like a nut would help.
Whatever the cause, the dancing went on, with people actually traveling to take part, and often wearing 'strange, colorful attire', their hair woven with garlands, and carrying branches or sticks to shake, rattle, and roll.
And then, around 1650 it all stopped.
It’s really difficult to know what happened. Social scientists are still, to this day, unsure why the dancing plague started, because it’s almost impossible to control an experiment to explore mass sociogenic illness, which is what most describe this as.
But, the fact is that no more dancing mania was ever recorded. Either the need to do it was quelled, or we evolved to a more controlled sort of craziness in the dance arena, like parties, and weddings, or Ascot balls.
There are many subsequent examples of mass hysteria, from workers in factories getting the same symptoms suddenly, but without any pathological illness whatsoever, to children smelling gas or chemicals and falling sick together, but with no gas or chemical ever detected.
But none as frightening as hundreds of people, seemingly entranced or bedevilled by a common cause, screaming and jumping, waving their hands frantically in the air in unison, and dancing with the stars.
photo by pixabay