Thursday, August 27, 2009

Died Dancin'

This is the best.

When this week's threethousand newsletter, which is probably properly termed something more technical, or at least technical-sounding, such as ' e-letter', although 'e' is a letter, therefore making me confused if I get lost thinking about it, arrived, I saw the words "Dancing Plague" and thought: "YES".

The skinny: in 1518 in Strasbourg (a city I only know about due to its very admirable astrological clock and automata) a woman began dancing madly in the street. She danced for four to six days. People soon joined her and within a month there were around 400 dancers. Most of them keeled over due to the stress your body probably feels if you've been dancing for a week straight. These days I can hardly struggle through a single song, even if I dance like an old Italian man swaying to "Volare" at a distant family member's wedding. Which is in most other respects how I usually view myself.

So these people were dancing until they died and as expected this became a bit of a concern. What did the authorities prescribe?


Actually, since I'm just paraphrasing (or downright plagiarising) the wikipedia page here, I might as well just copy and paste the whole paragraph on this point:

"As the dancing plague worsened, concerned nobles sought the advice of local physicians, who ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a "natural disease" caused by "hot blood". However, instead of prescribing bleeding authorities encouraged more dancing, in part by opening two guildhalls and a grain market, and even constructing a wooden stage. The authorities did this because they believed that the dancers would only recover if they danced continually night and day. To increase the effectiveness of the cure, authorities even paid for musicians to keep the afflicted moving."

There's so much goodness in that para.

Firstly, I like the physicians "ruling out" supernatural causes.
Secondly, I like that "hot blood" was once a more reasonable sounding diagnosis than "devils" or "restless goat spirits" or whatever.
Thirdly, I like that Diana Ross' Upside Down came on as I was reading the section.
Fourthly, they're dancing themselves to death so we need MORE DANCING.
Fifthly, they built a stage and hired a band? And converted three public buildings into discos?

What an awesome story, by which I mean tragic loss of life, by which I really mean awesome story (if anyone reading lost a distant ancestor in this event, you have my sincere condolences and also: you are clearly of awesome genetic stock).

Anyway, it wasn't just Strasbourg.

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, all over Europe, there was swingin', there was swayin', there were municipally-appointed musicians playin', and there was dancin' in the streets. "Dancing mania" affected populations in what's now Germany, France and the Netherlands.

What kind of dancing were they doing? In all instances chronicles asserted that it was dancing, not epileptic spasms or just jumping around. If my eighth-grade understanding of history (which mostly consisted of teachers putting on Hollywood movies depicting whatever period we were supposed to be studying) is reliable, most of the 'dancing' of this period involved people playing slow-motion patty-cake while walking in circles.

An aside: The 'tarantella' supposedly developed in a similar way. People who had been bitten by a tarantula were ordered to dance hard and fast in order to sweat the poison out.


What can we learn from all of this? I think the lessons here are obscure and convoluted, much like the gnarly sentence at the top of this post with its nested clauses and grammatically correct but horrible-to-parse employment of parataxis.

That is all.

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