Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Dance, Dance, Dance

When a Crowd becomes enthused by some urgent common purpose the prevailing mood tends to be manifested in an 'outward' direction. The collective response can, however, take any number of different forms. Two of the more typical collective emotions are the Expressive (which is essentially celebratory) in which the Crowd is concerned to let off steam, and the Riotous (where images of violent conflict are invoked). In the appropriate conditions either of these, and any variations, will be highly infectious. As in all movements involving a large gathering of people, a reaction maybe set up in which the individuals involved begin to reflect each others feelings and the prevailing mood, whatever it may be, rapidly becomes intensified. This process can easily draw the participants into completely uncharacteristic, and sometimes thoroughly irrational, forms of behaviour. Such crowd movements can also become ritualised to some extent. The highly contagious epidemics of 'choromania', the outbursts of frenzied dancing that occurred throughout the Middle Ages, are a classic, if extreme, example of this phenomenon.

The earliest accounts of hysterical dancing (at least in the western, Christian tradition) date back to the 7th century, in an event that was roundly condemned by the Council of Toledo. It notes the mad enthusiasm of the dancers and balefully records that 'Many girls forgot themselves and many husbands were deceived'. It is extremely likely that the authorities were troubled by other instances during the early medieval period, but there was little that was recorded until 1374 when, in the wake of the Black Death, huge crowds of men and women were seen at Aix la-Chappelle, in the streets and in churches, dancing themselves to exhaustion. Many had apparently experienced elaborate hallucinations and gave vivid descriptions of their visions of the Saviour and the Virgin Mary, rivers of blood, weird spirits etc.

It seems that the 'dancing epidemic' spread as rapidly as had the Plague itself - and in the same regions. A few months after Aix the phenomena surfaced at Cologne and then at Metz. The routine was always the same. Dancers formed circles, hand in hand, and danced around wildly for hours on end, seemingly oblivious their surroundings, until they fell exhausted to the ground. Others joined the throng and similar scenes of wild abandon ensued 'Peasants left their ploughs, mechanics their workshops, wives their domestic duties'. Life in the cities that were visited by this dancing fever was utterly disrupted. Servants abandoned their masters and children left their parents, and there were many 'idle vagabonds and ne'er-do-wells' who were quick to take advantage of the situation. The dancing itself was a relentless business and sometimes carried on for days. Cemeteries were favoured sites for the activity, in order, it was said, 'to cheer up the dead'. A contemporary account described some of the scenes - 'the dancing couples were so placed that one would advance towards the other in an unseemly fashion ... they indulged in disgraceful immodesty, many women baring their breasts during their shameful dancing .... others offered their virtue of their own accord'. The Church authorities were, naturally, horrified by this uncontrollable contagion of licentious behaviour - it was quite clearly the work of demons and had to be curtailed.

The first move to counter these curious outbreaks was usually in the form of grand collective exorcisms. But these attempts were generally ineffective, and occasionally had the detrimental effect of increasing the general level of hysteria and spreading the dance-infection to others among the great crowds of curious onlookers. Many danced themselves to exhaustion, but did eventually stop and recover; others appeared to have been more seriously affected. For the latter, pilgrimages were arranged, usually to the shrine of St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancers. Wherever the mania persisted the authorities resorted to more brutal measures of repression, and clamped down on dancing of any kind.

The epidemics tended to burn themselves out, but the example and memory of these events lingered on, and there were sporadic outbreaks of the dance-craze in many European countries throughout the 14th century and well into the 15th. There were also bizarre, local variation, including the Jumping mania. The Jumpers popped up from time to time in the medieval records, and by some indeterminable chain of transmission made a surprising reappearance in 18th century Wales. There are good descriptions of this particular expressive variant by no less an authority than the evangelist John Wesley. He describes the Jumpers as repeatedly leaping several feet in the air, clapping their hands, shaking their heads, rolling their eyes and generally throwing themselves about. A lady Jumper apparently informed Wesley that she was not conscious while engaged in these activities, but was 'very glad', since the Power of God was clearly working through her .

One of the more famous variants of collective ecstatic dancing (and almost certainly a continuant of medieval choromania) was that centred on the town of Taranto in southern Italy. But Tarantism, as it became known, has a history, a mythology and 'explanations' all of its own. It would appear to be associated with a spider native to the region that has a poisonous, and potentially lethal, bite. Traditionally, when somebody was bitten every effort was made to keep the victim as active as possible for at least 24 hours. The reasons that were given for this were various - that it was necessary to counter the effect of the poison, or that it dispelled the deadly depression that followed, or that the bite itself caused spasmodic twitching of the limbs. In any case, the standard remedy to the situation was to encourage the victim to dance. Musicians were quickly called in, neighbours joined in the effort, and as the sufferer became weary the music got faster and faster. Invariably, it seems, the dancers became possessed, and those that had come to watch also got caught up in the frenzy, many coming to believe that they too had been bitten. An orgy of dancing then ensued, involving most of the neighbourhood that ended only when everyone was completely exhausted. Once again, in older accounts of this phenomenon there are dark hints that it was associated with immoral activity.

Since it appears that there were outbreaks of Tarantism every summer it seems fairly obvious that this curious interaction of hysteria, socialisation and art had became thoroughly ritualised. The musicians became known as Tarantella players, and the forms of their music were widely imitated. The dance survived, in an attenuated form, as part of a summer festival in the region until modern times.