In the hot summer of 1518, in Strasbourg, a woman called Frau Troffea stepped out into the street and started dancing. A bit strange, I suppose, but nothing compared to what was to come.
People looking out of the window at old Frau Troffea noticed that she was still getting on down a couple of hours later.
One woman locked in her own silent disco. And perhaps, having had a couple of steins of beer, others decided that it might be a laugh to join in.
For some inexplicable reason, none of the dancers felt the need to stop. And according to contemporary accounts, they danced through the night and through into the next day.
By now, word had begun to spread around the city and people were drawn to the increasingly bizarre spectacle – some of whom then felt the need to fling themselves into the fray and throw some shapes themselves.
Everyone was having fun when some of them began ruining the mood by dying from dehydration and exhaustion.
When the quietly freaking out city elders failed to make everyone behave themselves and go home (presumably by playing Sinatra’s New York, New York and switching on the lights), they decided that what these crazy ravers needed was an opportunity for yet more dancing.
They cleared an open air grain market and horse fair for the gyrating loonies – and even hired musicians to encourage them to get it out of their systems.
After racking up dozens more deaths, the city rulers agreed that perhaps encouraging more of the deadly dancing was, on reflection, a mistake.
They then tried to ban music and dancing in public and finally took the hardcore that were left to a shrine dedicated to St Vitus where their bloody feet were placed into red shoes and they were led around a wooden figurine of the saint. Over the next few weeks the dancers finally ceased their wild movements.
So what the blue blazes was going on?
Some have speculated that the dance epidemic of 1518 could have been the result of ergot poisoning. The ergot mould grows on damp rye and produces a chemical related to LSD. In high doses, it has been known to induce hallucinations and violent twitching which could well be mistaken for dancing (if you’ve ever seen me dance).
The poisoning has also been associated with numerous other outbreaks of hysterical behaviour, especially the Salem Witch Trials.
Others have speculated that the dance epidemic was an example of mass hysteria where large groups of people become strongly influenced by the behaviour of others around them – such as the screaming girls at a Beatles concert or the hordes of drones unthinkingly watching Love Island.
Whatever the cause, we can turn to the wisdom of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine when they issued their cryptic warning in 1987 ‘The Rhythm is going to get you’.
If only they were plying their Latin infused pop in 16th century France – lives could have been saved.