Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Keiana from Harrisburg, NY. Keiana Wonders, “How did Dancing Mania Start?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Keiana!

Do you love to dance? Many kids do. Maybe you like to do the two-step or cha-cha slide. Perhaps freestyle or break dancing is more your thing. However you like to move, we bet you enjoy swaying to the music from time to time.

But what if you started dancing . . . and couldn’t stop? That may sound like a lot less fun—and believe it or not, it’s happened. In fact, this condition has affected hundreds of people throughout history. It even has a name: dancing mania.

Dancing mania is also called choreomania. It’s an uncontrollable urge to dance that tends to spread quickly between people. In some cases, entire villages experienced dancing mania!

Dancing mania was first recorded in 1021 C.E. in a German town called Kölbigk. However, this wouldn’t be the last occurrence. Over the next few centuries, outbreaks were reported all over Europe. Most of these were in Germany.

The largest outbreak of dancing mania took place in Aachen, Germany, in 1374. With no reason or explanation, people there danced for hours and days on end. They moved their bodies without music far beyond the point of exhaustion. This went on until they collapsed. 

What caused dancing mania? That’s still a mystery. At the time, many people pointed to spiritual sources. Church leaders suggested the dancers were possessed. Some thought they were cursed by saints—this is why dancing mania is sometimes called St. John’s Dance.

When cases of dancing mania appeared in Italy, they called it tarantism. Italians believed it may have been caused by spider bites. They thought the strange dancing and jerking motions were the body clearing itself of spider venom.

However, most modern experts discount these explanations. Instead, some believe dancing mania could have been caused by a fungus. Called ergot, it can grow on rye and could have been consumed through bread. The toxin made by this fungus can cause hallucinations and spasms.

Many others explain dancing mania by pointing to the extreme stress of living in the Middle Ages. For example, many areas that experienced dancing mania also dealt with outbreaks of the Black Death. They also faced other diseases as well as famine. People were also under pressure from church leaders to avoid activities seen as impure—such as dancing.

Citing these stressors, many experts believe victims of dancing mania were suffering from a breakdown of mental health. Others joined in the dancing due not to contagion but to mass hysteria. This is one of the most accepted explanations for dancing mania.

Does dancing mania sound scary? There’s good news: There have been no reported cases since the mid-17th century. People today do not get dancing mania. However, other conditions can cause involuntary movement. If you experience this symptom, tell a trusted adult.

Dancing mania affected hundreds of people across Europe. Some, unable to stop dancing, even died from exhaustion. What do you think caused this condition? What would you think if it returned today?

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