According to Google Trends, interest in the word ‘epidemic’ has increased from 6% to 100% since January 2020. That’s stating the obvious, of course.
Not all epidemics, however, are caused by bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms, attacking us silently from within, slowly taking our breath away, leaving our streets empty and silent.
Some epidemics are loud, boisterous and throbbing, and ultimately baffling, like St Vitus’ Dance. Also known as dancing mania or, to give it a more respectable scientific name choreomania, St Vitus’ Dance was trending the charts between the 14th and the 17th century. St Vitus’ album made the Top 10 in the Holy Roman Empire, but sold thousands of copies in England, Flanders and Italy.
When Saint Vit goes marching in, nothing can stop him.
St Vitus was the muse behind Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the end of love, which, very few people know, was originally titled Dance me to the end of life. Because there was no recorded music in the early modern period, people just danced till they dropped dead. The dancing mania claimed the lives of thousands of people in Western Europe, but as one victim later put it, ‘it was the best way to go’. After a woman started dancing in the streets of Strasbourg in 1518, hundreds joined in and the party didn’t stop for days until everyone was dead or in hospital. Because it was such a hit, other cities imported it, and thousands more people discoed to the Rhythm Is Gonna Get You until the Holy Roman Empire was one huge street party.
Like every great artist, St Vitus defies all explanations of success. Detractors in Italy blamed tarantulas for why people were acting like this and called the frenzy tarantism. Everyone knows they were bad-mouthers because they were lousy at dancing the tarantella. Later critics claimed that the dancers were victims of ergot poisoning, caused by the rye ergot fungus, which just shows their bias against magic mushrooms. Others pointed to a possible behavioural epidemic or culture-bound syndrome, which doesn’t really explain anything.
Perhaps silent disco is the best cure to St Vitus’ dance. Save the last dance for me, Emmylou.