Uncontrollable dancing

I’m fascinated by the idea of uncontrollable dancing. It seems a world away now, but it was once a familiar cultural phenomenon. In ancient Greek culture, for example, we read of the wild followers of Dionysus, also known as ho lysios or ‘he who grants release’. His followers were, apparently, released from all the prohibitions of civilisation, and would whirl and dance around until they achieved a state of mind called enthousiasmos, or ‘having the God within oneself’.

In the Middle Ages, there were frequent outbreaks of dancing mania, also known as St Vitus’ Dance or dancing plague, because the mania was sometimes thought to be a curse sent by St Vitus, patron saint of dancing. Those afflicted would end up dancing in front of his shrine, praying to be released from their ordeal. In 1278, 200 people were seized by the mania in Germany, and danced on a bridge over the river Meuse, causing it to collapse. There was a particularly bad outbreak in 1518, when a lady, Frau Troffea, started to dance in a street in Strasbourg. Within a week, 34 people joined her, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers, some of whom eventually died from exhaustion.

Psychologists now think these outbreaks are an extreme example of ‘social contagion’, or perhaps a reaction to adverse circumstances like economic depression: think of the acid house parties that spread across the country in the recession of the early 1990s. I remember seeing people at nightclubs in the 1990s who literally could not stop dancing, though of course they were on a lot of drugs.

We still see remnants of this idea of uncontrolled ecstatic dancing in our own more straight-laced times. Musicians used to say someone ‘got the funk’ – a word which historians think comes from the African word lu-fuki, meaning sweat, as if ‘the funk’ is some sort of sweat-lodge shamanic training. People also speak of ‘getting loose’, ‘getting down’, ‘working it out’, ‘getting into the groove’: all of this suggests, to me, that when we dance, we somehow re-connect with what contemporary psychologists call our automatic-emotive thinking system, which seems to respond particularly to patterns, beats or loops. Perhaps dancing allows us to re-connect to this system and somehow ‘work out’ emotions or drives that our rational civilisation forces us to inhibit.

Even if we don’t see many examples of uncontrolled or involuntary dancing on the streets, alas, we still see references to it in the arts. Here, for example, is an example of a Dionysiac-esque outbreak from the BBC comedy, The Mighty Boosh.

There’s the enthousiasmos of the Blues Brothers in a church run, appropriately enough, by the godfather of funk, James Brown.

The famous T-Mobile advert is, from one point of view, a recreation of a medieval outbreak of dancing mania:

My favourite example is Baloo losing control of himself in the Jungle Book.

7 thoughts on “Uncontrollable dancing

  1. The tarantella’s a really interesting example of this, with many layers of explanation about the purposes/folklore behind it. There’s a fantastic short film that captures some instances of it in Puglia, all of which seems to be available on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EI8hWJJVqyY.

    • So the story goes, yes. If you’re interested, I’d strongly recommend Ernesto De Martino’s book, The Land of Remorse – he looks at it from various perspectives, including the tarantella dancing ritual as a catharsis, or response to mental illness, and the folklore behind it all.

  2. I recommend John Waller’s very good book ‘A time to dance, a time to die’ Icon Books 2008 – on the Strasbourg dance plague of 1518

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