I refuse to dance unless I’ve consumed at least half of my weight in grain alcohol (though I have been known to attempt the Dougie, as long as I’m by myself and the curtains have been drawn). Generally speaking, a request to get down on the dance floor will almost certainly send me into a state of blind terror, accompanied by hives and the ice sweats.
You can imagine, then, my horror when hearing about “tarantism,” a disease which causes its victims to become irritable and restless, and was fatal unless treated immediately by engaging in aggressive dancing. It was relatively common during the 16th and 17th centuries in southern Italy, and is said to be the origin of the popular folk dance, “Tarantella,” which was performed by victims as the most important part of their therapy.
Hydrotherapy was also considered to be an important part of the healing process. Suffering would abate while listening to the soft sound of a gentle waterfall. Cloth would be soaked in wine and wrapped around the shoulders of a dancer. Many victims craved water and were even known to accidentally drown themselves, following deep contemplation of the ocean.
Symptoms of the disease included headaches, fainting, muscular spasms, delusions, overheating, and an increase in sexual appetite. Its name came from the source of infection, the bite of the tarantula spider, as well as contact with other infected individuals. There was no permanent remedy for the malady as those cured of tarantism would often relapse, the spider’s venom being reactivated by the summer heat or the overheard strains of Tarantella music being played to treat new victims.
Interestingly, the venom of the two tarantulas native to the region, the Latrodectus tarantula and the Lycosa tarantula, upon further study, was not found to cause tarantism. In fact, there has been no evidence to suggest that the disease is a physical one in any way, and is instead listed as a “dancing mania.”
Classified as a form of epidemic hysteria, dancing mania is a mass psychogenic illness (MPI) which was prevalent between the 14th and 17th centuries in Europe. Unlike tarantism, dancing mania was thought to have a spiritual source, the blame usually being laid on a curse instigated by one of the Catholic saints. For this reason, it was often referred to as “St. John’s Dance” or “St. Vitus’ Dance.” To cure the illness, the afflicted would be led to the nearest shrine of the saint responsible, where prayers and offerings were given to curb their anger. Hydrotherapy played a major role here, as well, the sufferer being plunged in cold water repeatedly to help assuage effects of the curse.
Thousands were affected by the sickness for over two centuries, but outbreaks tapered off by the mid-17th century. There were, however, a few more isolated instances of dancing mania popping up from time to time, afterward. One similar and well documented case happened in America in 1800. Here, spurred on by over-zealous religious gatherings, some people began to fall victim to contagious muscle contractions and uncontrollable crying, laughing, singing, and dancing.
It should be noted that MPI seems to affect women in larger amounts than men. To better understand the reason for this lopsided characterization, we can look to the cases of “motor hysteria” occurring in European convents between the 15th and 18th centuries. Young girls were often sent to these convents against their will, where they were forced to live under harsh conditions of austerity and discipline. Mass demonic possession became a common occurrence, with entire nunneries going into trance states, cursing, and performing lewd acts. The most common way of dealing with these problems was to send in a priest to conduct exorcisms, but executing nuns suspected of witchcraft also seemed to do the trick.
According to Erica Weir:
“A historical review of these events suggests that the features of mass sociogenic illnesses tend to mirror popular social and cultural preoccupations that define distinct eras and reflect unique social beliefs about the nature of the world. Before the 20th century most reports of mass sociogenic illness involved motor hysteria incubated by exposure to long-standing religious, academic or workplace discipline.” (“Mass Sociogenic Illness”, CMAJ Volume 172)
Considering that the symptoms associated with these outbreaks are all characterized by behavior that was frowned upon during its time, particularly its sexual nature, bouts of mass hysteria can be perceived as attempts by the psyche to let off some steam built up by an oppressive society. The fact that it appears to have affected mostly women says much about the harmful effect of the patriarchal drive to control the female libido.
Although tarantism and dancing mania seem to have disappeared from the world, cases of mass psychogenic illness continue to happen. Knowing its causes, manifestations of MPI can be a good indicator of the the depth of oppressive tendencies held by the culture it appears in. It also teaches us a lesson: the more we suppress our hidden desires, the more likely they are to express themselves in an extreme fashion.
In the meantime, I’m going to start taking cold baths and buy a Tarantella CD. Just in case.