Ecstatic Dance: Medieval Dansomania and the Love Parade in Berlin, 1996
By Irina Metzler
Manifold, Vol. 4, No. 1/2 (1997)
Introduction: The focus of this article is on the medicalisation of dance, on how certain types of dance, depending on the social context, are seen by commentators as being akin to illness, rather than “legitimate” dance (such as e.g. ballet, folk dance, ballroom dancing), and how the pathologisation of the activity labels it as deviant. Two specific instances have been selected for the purposes of the present paper: the dansomania of 1374 and the Love Parade in Berlin 1996. Though separated by time as well as geography – the dansomania was located in what is now Belgium and France – there are similarities between the two events. These similarities are to be found in the descriptions by non-participants, the commentators, historians and journalists, rather than in the events as such. Some similarities can be found between the events, of course, such as in the mass character of the dances, or in the ecstatic element common to both. But it is the reaction of the viewer-commentator that is strikingly similar, and the gaze of 600 years ago medicalises as much as the gaze of 1996.
In the summer of 1374 the appearance of certain dancers was noticed in the Low Countries and northern France by the lay and ecclesiastical chroniclers; apparently these dancers were originating from the cities of the Rhine region and spreading into France and Flanders. Some of the dances were called the “dances of St John” or of “St Vitus” because of their ‘Bacchantic’ leaps and jumps which characterized them, and ‘which gave to those affected, whilst performing their wild dance, and screaming and foaming with fury, all the appearance of persons possessed.’ At Aix-la-Chapelle in 1374 men and women ‘continued dancing, regardless of the bystanders, for hours together in wild delirium, until at length they fell to the ground in a state of exhaustion’. While dancing they are oblivious to their surroundings, they shriek, scream, and rave – note the use of “rave” in its older meaning of manic behaviour – and they have visions which ‘according as the religious notions of the age were strangely and variously reflected in their imaginations.