Like all good plague stories, this one begins with omens. A star streaks across the sky. Fields flood. Extreme cold is followed by extreme heat, which is followed, inevitably, by extreme hunger. On a sweltering summer's day in July 1518 a woman called Frau Troffea steps into a square in Strasbourg and begins to dance. At first those around her only watch, curiosity piqued by this unusual public display. They watch a woman who will not, cannot, stop. She dances for nearly a week, felled occasionally by exhaustion but largely undaunted by the body's other warning signs: pain, hunger, shame. There is no music. Her heart keeps the tempo, working hard to make the motion continue.
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By the time she is taken away, it is too late. Others have joined. By August there will be hundreds. Like her, they cannot explain themselves. They dance as if compelled, feet bloodied and limbs twitching. A poem taken from a contemporary chronicle describes "women and men who dance and hop…/ In the public market, in alleys and streets,/ Day and night" until the "sickness" finally stops. Further chronicles outline the measures taken by the authorities in response. One writer describes dancers being carted off to St Vitus's shrine outside the city, where they are "given small crosses and red shoes". Another mentions more direct arrangements made for the dancers to tire them into submission, with "persons… specially appointed to dance with them for payment, to the music of drums and pipes". This does not help. "All this was of no avail, and many danced themselves to death."