The people who ‘danced themselves to death’

In the heavily claustrophobic religious setting of The Dance Tree, dancing also goes against the grain. It is, as Paracelsus so helpfully reminds us, much too pleasurable to be anything other than suspect. “Dance has such a huge role in so many cultures outside our own, particularly in Indian culture,” Millwood Hargrave explains. “In terms of faith and movement… they are just absolutely perfect bedfellows, because the purest expression of devotion is in body.” But within religious institutions that demand quiet piety, such gestures become dangerous. “It’s a really interesting thing to me that these women will never have been encouraged to move….” continues Millwood Hargrave. “In every other way church is so theatrical in the place and time of the book: these beautiful buildings, scent, incense, the beeswax, the clothes, it’s all so camp and so theatre. But once you’re in there, you’re still and you’re silent… It’s theatre, without the heat, without the actual bodily connection between people.”

A dance plague for every age

Events of mass disorder have always captivated artists. There is something fundamentally fascinating in a moment where the social fabric breaks, convention replaced with much weirder and more inexplicable happenings. In the case of choreomania, what emerges is not only a sense of entrancement or self-destruction (another popular artistic theme), but physical protest. Currently, the idea of a dance plague registers not only as an oddity, but something more liberatory. As scary as an unstoppable dance might be, there is an allure to it too. What might happen if we allowed ourselves to be properly carried away? What could be achieved with that feeling if it was replicated in the bodies of hundreds of other people moving around us?

This was not always the case. As Gotman explores in her book, once upon a time a dancing plague – however it was conceived – was something to be viewed with suspicion. In her research on 19th-Century approaches to choreomania, she discovered an alarmed attitude wrapped up in colonial thought and fear of otherness. “There was a real articulation of a version of modernity, as being in contrast to what was understood as more feminine, more animal, more wild, and untamed,” she tells me of the medical and historical writings she discovered in the Victorian era. “There was a racist and highly gendered discourse that was taking shape.”

At that point, when contextualising new perceived instances of choreomania, the medieval period was a convenient frame for understanding it. “The medieval… was compared to the African, largely as this kind of backward, non-European, pre-modern [period],” she explains. The very concept of “dance mania” was a useful political tool, allowing cross-comparison with – and dismissal of – protests and practises involving any element of physical movement. Gotman gives the example of puppet ruler King Radama II, who took control of Madagascar in 1861. When his people showed their displeasure, “exercising their right to protest against these kingdoms [that] sold off their lands to the Europeans,” with the king eventually deposed, it was easy for colonial missionaries to dismiss these actions as just another example of choreomania, transmuting a political protest into a mere instance of madness.

Now the prevailing mood has shifted. It is precisely the femininity and otherness of a dancing plague that makes it interesting. For today’s artist or thinker, it is both historic curio and symbol. At the centre is a simple idea. A group of people start to dance and can’t stop. But why they dance, and to what ends, remains an open-ended question: one that can be asked again and again, with different answers depending on what is being sought. Madness. Hunger. Protest. Freedom. Pleasure. Ecstasy. In the imagination, however, the dancers’ feet remain forever in motion, moving to their own, inscrutable rhythm.

Dance Fever by Florence + the Machine and The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave are out now.

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