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Dancing manias : About human energy

Dancing manias

– About human energy

Henning Eichberg

University of Southern Denmark, Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics


Dance research has hitherto mainly focused on two fields of activity: either scene dance (ballet, modern dance) or social dance (folk dance, court dance, waltz, modern pop dance). There is, however, a third field, which deserves attention – dance crazes, dancing manias.

This article takes its starting point from a revivalist dance movement in the twentieth century, turning back to the St. John’s and St. Veit’s dancing manias of the Middle Ages and to Tarantism in Early Modern Italy. The phenomenology of these dance crazes includes trance, religious revival and eroticism.

Dancing manias raise questions about the significance of the concept of energy. Space and time are not sufficient to describe the dynamics of these dances – and this may even be true for scene dance and for trendy social dance.

But what is the energy in human movement culture – and what is its material character? The term “energy” must be discussed in relation to dance, as it has previously been applied to theatre, joint singing and laughter. The energy of dance is, thus, significant not only for the understanding of dance. It also challenges to develop methods for the materialistic phenomenology of body culture more generally.

For inter-cultural learning between East and West, the study of human energy is highly important. It breaks down the established dualism between Western rationality (based on the measurement of space and time) and Eastern “irrational” energeticism.

Keywords: Dance history, Tarantism, movement culture, critique of functionalism, Chi


Case: A revivalist dance movement 1920-21

In May 1920, 25 young people met in Hartenstein/Erzgebirge and began a joint hiking tour.  With guitar and violin, bugle horn and blue flag, die Neue Schar – the New Flock, as they called themselves – began wandering from town to town. As a dissident group from Wandervogel, a German youth movement and counter-culture emerged after 1900, they hiked through Franken and Thüringen. But what was of particular note was that they ”occupied” each town by town by dance. Beginning with children in the market place, they attracted larger and larger numbers of townspeople to their circles of folk dance. In some towns, churches were opened for the sermons of Friedrich Muck-Lamberty (1891-1984), the charismatic leader of Neue Schar – and then the group would continue their tour. In Erfurt, more than 10.000 inhabitants were engaged in dancing.

Fig. 1: Townsfolk dancing in Eisenach, 1920.

Insofar as this phenomenon found attention, the focus was on its ideological contents (Ritzhaupt 1921, Linse 1983). The speeches of Muck-Lamberty expressed a radical cultural criticism against the ”old world” and some vague ideas about a coming new ”people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft). The young people talked about a spiritual revival of the youth, about a revolution of the soul, and free love. These ideas were an echo of Hermann Hesse, Mazdaznan, Buddha, Laotse, Rabindranath Tagore, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Jesus, and Nietzsche.

The movement had religious undertones, but its religious contents were far from clear. The Neue Schar was allowed to use the protestant churches of Weimar and Erfurt, but their Maria-song had a catholic intonation. There were also relations to German neo-paganism. All in all one could think of them in terms of a new-religious syncretism.

Politically, the dance movement was controversial for both the Right and Left. The group criticized the right-wing Conservative Youth for their alcohol consumption, and it was itself distrusted by the right-wingers as being advocates of “anarchy, chaos and non-believing”, of “communism”. Indeed, the young people had chosen “voluntary poverty” and were singing among others the socialist workers’ song Brüder zur Sonne zur Freiheit (Brothers to sun and to freedom). Left-wingers, however, denounced the dance movement as a distraction from class struggle.

On a broader canvass, one could place the phenomenon among the so-called Inflationsheiligen, the saints of inflation. Several prophets and gurus appeared after the German revolution 1918/19 and around the inflation of 1922/23 propagating for a new healthy and “natural” life (Linse 1983). The New Flock was in personal contact with some of these.

Fig.2: Revivalist sermon of Friedrich Muck-Lamberty

All the traditional historical descriptions remained, however, on the level of ideas, describing the movement as political, religious or para-religious. What arouses interest when seen from the perspective of body culture and social movement is, however, the practice and atmosphere of this movement.

At the centre of the New flock was a life-style, centered around dance. The members of the New Flock wore sandals or walked barefoot, wearing the loose dress of the Wandervogel, often self-made. They hiked from town to town, sleeping in the woods and gathering around fireplaces, singing their songs. When they invaded a town, they started by inviting children to dance. Their dance was folk dance, moving in minor or larger circles, and explicitly contrasting with bourgeois social dance. The new folk dance had elements of “drunkenness” and ecstasy, creating an atmosphere of spiritual revivalism. And in their social practice, the young people tried a sort of ”communist” life in togetherness. There were also strong undertones of eroticism.

Fig.3: Muck-Lamberty arranges dance in town

Fig.4: Dance of the New Flock with town’s children

The bodily practices of dance where the basis for the superstructure of syncretistic discourse that fascinated people. Two keywords of this revival were “spirit” (Geist) and “swing” (Schwingen). On one of their flyers, “The revolution of the soul”, a poem told:

“Fellow, let it flap and wave,

Don‘t pretend to be sedated!

It should be a little bit stormy

If something pleasant shall happen.

Do what horrifies the people!

Don‘t be so iced!

Glow is spirit!“

“Something is swinging” – that is how Muck-Lamberty expressed the new practice. But what was “swing”? Was it just a metaphor? Anyway, contemporaries saw this dance as a revival, opening for a new culture.

However, the dance movement did not exist for a long time. By 1921, it had broken down when, driven by personal jealousy, it was disclosed that Muck-Lamberty had had sexual relations with three girls of the group at the same time. The disclosure of Muck’s “harem” was destructive for the romantic idealization of the youth and for the charismatic leadership of the “Messiah of Thüringen”.

Fig.5: The New Flock enters the town (Goslar ?) – Dance as mass movement

What had been a mass movement before, was now reduced to a small sectarian group of Muck’s personal followers.  Nevertheless, comparisons with contemporary phenomena of dance and body culture (Wedemeyer-Kolwe 2004) can shed light on the broader significance of this particular dance movement.

Comparisons with contemporary dance cultures

For a whole generation of German socialists, the so-called ”spirit of Weimar” became a keyword (Schult 1956). It referred to an event in August 1920 when the youth organisation of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialistische Arbeiterjugend, SAJ) held its meeting in Weimar. But in contrast to other political meetings of this type, the Weimar meeting did not just present speeches and political declarations. The young socialists were also singing, dancing in green landscape, and showing amateur theatre. Many of them wore the reform dress of the Wandervogel youth movement. Whether there was a direct connection with the New Flock, which had danced in Weimar some days before, is not documented. Irrespective of their potential connections, the young socialists danced some of the same folk dances as the Muck-Lamberty movement.

Fig.6: Folk dance as it was danced by SAJ in Weimar 1920.

For a whole generation, “the spirit of Weimar” became an utopian vision of a new culture of socialist youth. It became a quasi-esoteric bye-word for a spirit, a movement that could not be captured in words. Rather, it expressed a generational experience, and one which, moreover, had consequences.  The Danish socialist Julius Bomholt (1935: 116-17) described the German socialists’ Weimar experience in enthusiastic terms:

”What a storming feeling of infinity! What a faith in unlimited possibilities! The streets of Goethe’s town sounded of songs and guitar music, on the marketplaces and the greens at the river, they danced folk dances, and in the historical theatre, the poet Karl Bröger talked about the coming culture growing forth from a community of experience…

Romanticism – this is what it could be called. And it cannot be denied that there where romantic elements in the new ”style”: walking in moonshine to the sound of flute and lute, enthusiastic declamation of Goethe’s verses…

But there was also something really proletarian about the simple clothing  (without hat or collar, with bare legs in the shoes), and the happy joint hiking in the free nature showed that youth after the war in spite of all was healthy to the marrow.”

For another comparison, one can turn to a quite different world: fashionable social dance. Up to 1900, couple dances like the waltz and the polka had dominated one century of bourgeois dance culture. After 1900, these were replaced by new forms, some of which came from America: the ‘Boston’ and ‘Two-step’, ‘Schieber’ or ‘One-step’, later followed by ‘Quickstep’ and ‘Foxtrot’. From Afro-America came the ‘Cakewalk’, ‘Jazz’, ‘Shimmy’, ‘Charleston’, and ‘Black bottom’. From Latin America, the Argentinian ‘Tango’ spread to Europe.

These fashions represented the world of “alienating” social dance, which the folk dance revivalism of the New Flock was directed against. And yet, when this new social dance in the 1930s evoked a youth culture under the title of “Swing culture”, people used the same term that Muck-Lamberty had used to characterize the innovation of his youth movement. Indeed, it was a new swing that distinguished the new social dances from the established bourgeois dances of the nineteenth century – whatever the meaning of “swing” may be.

For a third comparison, one can turn to the contemporary scene dance. The 1920s brought new forms of Ausdruckstanz, which were a bodily equivalent to expressionism in the art of painting and literature. This was seen as a “revolution” of scene dance. Represented by Isadora Duncan, Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman, it generated what later became known as Modern Dance. With the Muck-Lamberty dance movement, this new scene dance shared the revolt against established bourgeois forms (here: the classical and romantic ballet), the worship of rage and ecstasy, bare feet, and the understanding of dance as identity work – not following established forms, but dancing “one-self”.

Challenges to traditional dance research

The comparison of these different fields of dance reveals some deeper connections in dance history of the 1920s. In spite of conflicting tendencies, one discovers synchronous cultural innovations, which started in the years after 1900. They had common traits of “awakening” and mobilization of new feelings, bringing new dynamics of movement which were called ”swing”. What does this mean for our understanding of change, cultural connection and contradiction?

This question challenges the traditional dance research. Dance research has hitherto mainly focused on two fields of activity: either scene dance (ballet, modern dance) or social dance (folk dance, court dance, waltz, ballroom dance and modern pop dance). Side by side with this sectorialization there is, however, a third field, which deserves attention – dance crazes, dancing manias. These have normally been marginalized or excluded, and indeed, they demand different methods of analysis.

In the sociology of dance, for instance, one has tried to define certain ”functions” of dance? (Rust 1969). We can identify – as one has said – pattern maintenance and tension management, adaption to societal goals, integration and socialization as the dominant structural-functional properties of dance. Outside this ”functional” normality of dance, however, some quite different dance cultures had to be recognized, but these were characterized as ”psycho-pathological” forms. Among these, one has placed the so-called “pathogenic dances in primitive societies”. These included on one hand convulsive and ecstatic dances in Siberian, Asian and African cultures like shamanic drum-dance and dervish whirling dance. And on the other hand, the “pathological” element was seen in the ecstatic dancing manias in Medieval Europe (Rust 1969).

The examples discussed above from the beginning of the 1920s contradict this binary ethnocentric construction – functional versus pathological. Dancing manias were not at all restricted to medieval times or to exotic people.

Medieval dancing manias

In medieval times, some regions of Europe experienced ecstatic dancing phenomena, which in German were called Tanzwut and for which the medical scholar Paracelsus coined the term Choreomania. The most famous dancing manias were the German and Dutch dances of St. John’s or St. Vitus, and the Italian Tarantism. (For sources of the following see Hecker 1832, Eichberg 1987, and Bartholomew 2000).

Early phenomena of collective dance epidemics were documented from German and Dutch towns, Kölbigk 1021, Erfurt 1237, and Utrecht 1278, where a crowd of dancers made the Maas bridge break apart. The most famous St. John’s dance, however, erupted in Aachen, western Germany, in 1374 (Sprandel 1991). Suddenly, masses of people – young and old, men and women, from lower and higher class – began to dance in ecstasy. The dancing mania was transferred by what was called ”sympathy”, like a contamination, and it persisted until the dancers fell down unconscious. The obsessed danced from town to town, thus spreading the mania in the west of Germany, in the Netherlands and Lorraine. From Metz (Lorraine), 1100 dancers in the streets were reported. Some of the dancers died of stroke, heart attack or exhaustion.

According to contemporary descriptions, the dances were accompanied by tremor and fainting, by laughter, tears and obscene gestures. People were squealing like animals, running naked or rolling in the dirt. It was also reported that the dancers reacted against the color red and against certain dress fashions. The dance was accompanied by visions and hallucinations. From Cologne, a song of the dancers from 1499 is delivered:

”Herre sent Johan – so, so – vrisch ind fro – herre sent Johan”

(Holy Lord John – so, so – fresh and glad – Holy Lord John)

The dances were connected to Saint John the Baptist. This saint’s name was during the Middle Ages given to several phenomena of folk paganism, shamanism and health cures in order to Christianize them. Among these were the midsummer bonfires of St. John, practiced all over Europe from Scandinavia to Spain (Kjær 1987). As early as in the seventh century, the French bishop St. Eligius warned the Flemish people, whom he Christianized:

“No Christian on the feast of St. John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solisticia or dancing or leaping or diabolic chants.”

Now in late Middle Ages, the authorities were seriously concerned about the mass dancing movements, which threatened to slip out of public control. They feared a new heretic movement. In order to control the ecstatic masses, churches were opened for the dancers, and priests held holy messes to heal their mania.

A new wave of dancing mania erupted in Strasbourg in 1518. A woman began dancing and “contaminated” during the following weeks around 400 dancers. Here, the authorities hired musicians to lead the dancers to churches of St. Vitus in order to calm them down. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the manias seem to have come to an end.

A special paradox of the dancing manias was that musicians were hired to help warding off the mania by accompanying the dancers to the churches. However, this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging even more people to join the craze.

Fig.7: Women with dance mania on pilgrimage to Meulebeke, West Flanders. Drawing by Pieter Bruegel the elder, 1564.

Fig.8: Dancing fanatics amid graves. German engraving about 1600

Later on, the name of St. Vitus dance was transferred to individual diseases manifesting themselves by manic movements. Another line of tradition lead to the German folk tale about Pied Piper or “the rat-catcher of Hameln”. Piet Piper helped the people of Hameln by playing the pipe and thus making the rats of the town disappear. He was, however, betrayed by the townsfolk, and therefore he played the pipe for their children, who – dancing in a large flock – disappeared with him to the nowhere. This legend was evidently modeled after the manias, when “orderly” people disappeared in collective dance.

Fig.9: Oldest picture of Pied Piper, watercolour by Augustin von Moersperg 1592, after the glass window of Marktkirche St. Nikolai in Hamelin.

Fig.10: A modern edition of the legend, based on the text of the Brothers Grimm.

When the mass craze in Germany and the Netherlands decreased, a similar dancing mania suddenly developed in South Italy, the so-called “Tarantism”. In fifteenth century, people in Apulia began dancing together, leaping, screaming, and shaking for hours. Music appeared to be a means of curing these convulsions. While lively, shrill tunes played on trumpets or pipes excited the dancers, soft, calm harmonies by contrast were regarded as efficacious for the cure.  The dancing mania was connected with the myth of the tarantula spider, the Mediterranean black widow. By its bite, this spider was said to cause mental illness, hypersensitivity for music, dance and erotic desire. While the dance of St. John was seen as part of the disease, in Tarantism dancing served together with music as a cure.

From Apulia, Tarantism spread to other parts of Italia. It reached its peak in seventeenth century, but some Tarantist phenomena have been observed up to the twentieth century. Later on, Tarantism was split up into two very different phenomena. On one hand, it was regarded and treated as an individual disease, like epilepsy. And on the other hand, it became a folk dance with tambourines, Tarantella, giving inspiration to a musical genre of this name (Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Rossini and Schubert).

Dancing manias in Western explanation – and in Western modernity

Modern interpretations of the historical dancing manias have so far referred mostly to the medical sides (Hecker 1832, Zinsser 1935) or the religious dimensions of the mania (Backman 1945, Bartholomew 2000).

Medical doctors have discussed certain forms of ergot poisoning, caused by a fungus on rye, a cereal grain. The connection between this poisoning and dancing remains, however, vague. And it refers only to some medieval phenomena – just like the folk interpretation of spider poisoning remained restricted to the Apulian case. Other medical doctors have seen dancing manias in connection with epidemics of the Middle Ages, like the plague of the Black Death.

In religious and sociological interpretations, the dancing manias were normally seen as a cult or a sect. One has postulated some roots going back to bacchanalia of ancient Greece. This remained highly speculative and did not contribute to an understanding of the modern dancing epidemics.

From the side of psychology, other attempts were made to explain the phenomena. One has talked about relief of stress, for instance in connection with the plague, about “collective mental disorder“ or “collective hysterical disorder“, about mass madness and psychic epidemic. While these interpretations mostly remained metaphorical, concrete psychological approaches have tended to reduce the manias to individual disease of the nervous system, like epilepsy or Sydenhams chorea. A connection between individual disease and the dancing mass movements has, however, not been documented.

These interpretations, thus, tell us more about the researchers than about the phenomena under research. This is especially true for the ethnocentric functionalism talking about “pathological” dances of Middle Ages and of “primitive” people. And when researchers explained dancing manias by maladjusted females acting in a deviant, irrational or mentally disturbed way, gender prejudices became manifest.

What these interpretations often have overseen is that dancing manias and collective convulsions were also known from times of Enlightenment and industrial modernity. 1731, the so-called convulsionnaires assembled in a graveyard in Paris, performing collective convulsions. This group of religious pilgrims experienced miracle cures and were said to speak in tongues, bark like dogs, swallow glass or hot coals, and dance until they collapsed. Public and religious authorities distrusted them as being connected with the Jansenist heresy. Driven from the graveyard, the convulsionists later formed the sect of secouristes.

In the 1730s, collective religious spasms were also experienced on the Shetland islands. In 1760, the so-called ”jumpers” transformed Methodist church service in Cornwall into ecstatic events. In 1787, collective convulsions happened in an English spinning manufacture. In 1800, enthusiastic religion spread in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, with convulsions, uncontrolled laughing, crying, and shouting. In 1801, women fell collectively into spasms in Charité, the hospital of Berlin. And there were more cases.

The ecstatic and revivalist features of the Muck-Lamberty dancing movement of 1920 were, thus, not isolated. And the functionalist dualism between primitive ecstasy and modern functionality in dance is inappropriate. The modernity of dancing crazes questions many of the suppositions of previous research, which gave the phenomenon an archaic touch.

Furthermore, the focus of research in this field on medical history and on the history of religion is too narrow. Scholarship from the history of music is, for instance, rarely discussed. Here it could be eye-opening (or better: ear-opening!) to include the phenomenon of hoquetus. Hocketing was a musical technique that appeared suddenly in the thirteenth century, where two voices shared a melody in a highly rhythmical and expressive way. Hocketing, which was connected with some dance phenomena, was condemned by religious authorities in terms which are reminiscent of the accusations directed against the contemporary dancing manias. Hoquetus has also been compared with music forms in Africa and in Indonesian gamelan, and its technique are nowadays continued in rock and funk music.

Last, but not least, comparative dance research is missing from the field. Dancing manias with their elements of trance, religious revival, and eroticism demand a special focus on movement culture.

Movement approach and the energy of dance

An involvement of dance research in this field necessitates a self-critical reflection of dance research. The established focus of dance research on either social dance or scene dance is too narrow. The split-up anchoring of dance research in different disciplines like sports science (side by side with gymnastics), theatre history (mostly ballet), and musicology, does not favor a profound understanding of dance either. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to dance as human movement, i.e. a body cultural approach. It is not by accident that Western languages use the term “movement” to describe three different fields of phenomena. Seen from the material of dancing manias: Bodily movement included dance, leaping, convulsion and swing. Emotional movement can be found in ecstasy and eroticism, in extraordinary feelings, and in what contemporaries experienced as provoking new energy. And there was social movement as soon as one could observe mass movement, awakening or popular revival. These three dimensions – bodily, emotional and social – were connected by swing and energy, but how?

Normally, the configuration of dance is described by the dimensions of

–          space (choreography and spatial form of movement)

–          time (rhythm, beat, cadence), and

–          inter-human relations (figures, contact, forms of connection).

From the perspective of dance manias, these three dimensions are neither sufficient to characterize dance nor human movement more generally. What is needed is a special attention to the energy of movement, to its atmosphere, mood, feelings, and Stimmung (German: sentiment, spirit, tune) as an important part of the body cultural configuration. (About configurational analysis see Eichberg 2010 b, chap.3.3.).

A danger, however, when talking about the energy – or power, tune, spirit, mood – of movement is to remain on the metaphorical level. That is why dance research would be well-advised to look over the fence to other comparable fields of scholarship where the term energy has been used and developed. In the anthropology of theatre and performance, Eugenio Barba (1991) has approached “the actor’s energy”. This was inspired by Eastern body practices where the energy of Chi is central. Studies of shamanism and possession states have contributed to energy studies, too (Lewis 1989). Laughter is a phenomenon of bodily convulsion and energy as well – and likewise is the joint singing of human beings (Eichberg 2010 a, chaps. 8 and 10). In French epistemology, Gaston Bachelard (1938) has delivered a brilliant “Psychoanalysis of fire”. And in a similar intellectual context, Roger Caillois (1958) has placed ilinx (frenzy, ecstasy) central as one of four main forms of play.

Seen in this context, it was more than a metaphorical allusion when the Expressionist dance choreographer and theorist Rudolf von Laban (1984) talked about the ‘energy of dance’. This has sometimes been neglected by his followers, who made a system out of the great daring attempts, which Laban had outlined as practitioner and philosopher of the expressionist body. It was not by accident that he was a contemporary of Muck-Lamberty and the 1920 dance craze.

The significance of dancing manias goes, thus, much deeper than just being a sector (in the “psycho-pathological” field). Dance is not just form in space and time, nor is it just artistic expression. Sociologically seen: Dance is not just social-functional integration. Dance is a playing-out of bodily and psychical energy. This is also true for the energy of social dance (like the ‘Tango’) and the energy of scene dance (like expressionist Ausdruckstanz). And: Energy is more than a metaphor – but what?

Energy is material in character, but it cannot be measured by centimeters or seconds in human practice, as space and time can be measured. However, energy is open to phenomenological description, comparison and analysis (Eichberg 2010 a and b).

Towards a deeper materialistic study of body culture

All this is more than pure theory. When rock’n’roll music appeared in the 1950s, new forms of dance and ecstasy erupted among young people, shocking the public. In the media, the screaming and eccentric riots of the young dancers were met by assumptions of “pathological” craze, too – but this term did not contribute to deeper understanding.

Fig.11. Rock’n’Roll ecstasy in the 1950s.

And in the 1980s, rave dancing spread with new convulsions and trance experiences. These phenomena demand new ways of description and analysis (Gaule 2005).

Fig.12: Rave 2010.

The energy of dance is important not only for the understanding of dance, casting light from the “third’” – dancing manias – on the established, accepted and “functional” practices of social dance and scene dance. The reflection on the energy of dance challenges also towards methods for the phenomenology of body culture more generally, where phenomenological studies are directed towards festivity, drunkenness, singing, shamanism, ilinx games, and laughter.

Furthermore, the study of human energy is highly important for inter-cultural learning between East and West. The mainstream of sociology has established a certain dualism between Western rationality (based on the measurement of space and time) on one hand – and Eastern “irrational” energeticism on the other. This has often implied a certain methodological idealism both on the Western and the Eastern side, describing either Western superstructures of discourses or Eastern philosophies. This dualism and its idealistic connotations are broken down by the study of Western dancing manias, in comparative perspective. And more than this, it leads to questions of fundamental methodological and philosophical character. The reduction of movement by measurement of space and time is the basis of Western “physicalism” in sociology. This is not “the rationality”, but just one – and a narrow, reductive one. The dancing manias were a part of Western culture as well as of Western modernity. Human energy may be more difficult to measure than space and time, indeed – or it may even be impossible to be measured at all. But it is nevertheless an important dimension of human bodily practice – and not just of dance.

It is at this point that a materialistic study of human energy meets the Eastern experiences of Chi. And both may need each other.


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