Frau Troffea didn’t know what made her step into that busy street in Strasbourg. One moment she was walking to the market to buy some more bread for her family and the next moment, she was in the street. She wasn’t the type of person to seek attention. In fact it was the opposite. She was so shy and introverted that she typically tried to avoid gatherings and revelries. There was no reasonable explanation for why she took to the street and began dancing.
People walking behind her took a wide berth to avoid her. Some cast a backwards glance before continuing on with their busy schedules. Most didn’t even bother to look back at her twisting and twirling. They figured that she was just celebrating something and they were too apathetic to care. They figured she would stop dancing when she realized that she was causing a scene. Frau Troffea did not stop dancing.
After a couple of moments, a crowd started to form to watch this oddity. Most had seen her running errands about town, but they didn’t know her by name. She was just another anonymous face in the crowded streets, silently performing her chores and duties before returning home at the end of the day. She was no longer blending in with the traffic, now she was catching people’s attention. The crowd watched her dance back and forth in the streets.
It didn’t take long before a few people in the crowd began to heckle her. They joked with each other about her lack of grace and poise, about how outdated her dancing skills seemed, and her lack of shame. Some even compared her to a dancing bear. Frau Troffea heard all of the chides and snipes. Her face blushed a bright red, but she continued on dancing. The crowd grew larger and larger as she continued to dance.
She was dreadfully embarrassed, but that didn’t cause her to miss a beat or a step in her choreography. She was beginning to sweat now. The crowd had swelled to thirty or so people. This dance had been going on for twenty minutes or so. A prim and proper woman shouted, "This is immoral! Stop this dancing at once!” Frau Troffea wished that was possible. She had tried to stop dancing a few times since she began, but found herself unable. She couldn’t stop dancing.
The crowd grew larger and larger still. Their comments grew even more offensive as their number increased and they were swallowed up into anonymity. The sun was beginning to set. An orange glow washed over the street. It would be dark soon. The workers would be along soon to light the lanterns and still Frau Troffea danced her mad and jubilant dance. The crowd was beginning to disperse when an old man breached the wall of people. He shuffled to the center of the street and took Frau Troffea’s hand in his and they began to waltz.
The crowd roared with laughter at the absurdity of it all. This frail old man was passionately dancing with all his heart. He was a little more elegant than the younger, middle-aged woman, but the streets were cobbled and every now and then, he would slip on a loose stone. The audience guffawed at every pratfall and it wasn’t until he began to speak that the laughter began to die out and be replaced with something else. He croaked in a horse voice, "Help me! I can’t stop this infernal dancing.”
A few of the women blanched at this, but most assumed that he was joking. Those who were more susceptible to fear left the crowd and returned home. They told their children about the strange dancing man and woman. The little ones wanted to go and see this spectacle, but most were assuaged that they would go and watch the persistent dancers tomorrow. Their parents reasoned that the couple would have tired themselves out and gone home at some time during the night. They were wrong.
When they woke up the next morning and began their trek to the market; they were confronted with the same crowd. The children eagerly pushed their way to the front of the crowd to watch the dancers. Over night, their numbers had swollen to twenty people. All the dancers moved to their own beat. Some had paired up and were waltzing, others danced by themselves. Some performed moves that were in keeping with the latest fashion and others were showcasing styles that hadn’t been used for years. The elderly danced with children, women with men, rich with poor.
Time passed and the dancing mob’s number continued to grow stronger. Frau Troffea now looked nothing like she did when she started. The bags under her eyes were deepening and she danced about in a manner that was one part drunken shuffle and another part lethargic waltz. Her mouth was wide open and it looked like the gaping maw could swallow her partner whole. She had been dancing for over a day now and she was reaching the end of her waltz.
Days passed. Frau Troffea drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes she completely withdrew into herself in a semi-catatonic state and was whirled around by the old man. She was past the precipice of exhaustion and now was in a state of almost complete numbness. The dancing horde now blocked the entire street. Most people avoided the writhing mass now. The smell of sweat and feces threatened to overwhelm anyone who drew close. Worse than the smell were the sounds emanating from the dancers.
Frau Troffea’s head lolled from side to side. This was one of her few and far between waking moments. She was surrounded by the sound of weeping and cries of pain. Her shoes squelched and left wet, crimson stains behind her. The soles of her feet were riddled with ruptured blisters. One woman alternated crying out to Saint Vitus for forgiveness and then damning him for condemning her. One man screeched relentlessly for someone, ‘to stop playing that Goddamn violin.’ There was no violin nor instrument of any type playing. At least not one that could be heard by anyone other than the dancers. The only audible sounds were the chorus of pained screams, sobs, and shrieks.
What was most disturbing to those that watched the dance was one of the dancers. A young man had earlier slipped on the cobble street and rolled his ankle. There was a sickening pop as the ankle dislocated and the cartilage tore. He screamed and the others noted that he probably wouldn’t be walking anytime soon. To their horror, he got back onto his feet and continued to dance. He wailed in pain every time he put weight on his feet. Tears streamed down his face as he continued to twirl and whirl in horrific unison with his partner. Not even a crippling injury could prevent someone from this horrible ballet.
Frau Troffea had a horrible thought. It cut through her fugue like a razor. Am I going to keep dancing until my feet are just bloody stubs? Will I dance until I’m nothing but a gaunt, emaciated skeletal participant? She looked at her new dancing partner. He was a street beggar. His hands grasped painfully at her sides like he would die if he lost his grip. That much was true. The old man, her first dancing partner, collapsed to the street; clutching at his chest. I just wanted to get some more bread for my family. Those were her last thoughts. She fell face first on the cobble street and the people continued to dance. They danced around her and on her. She died from exhaustion before the dancing horde mashed her flesh into the street. The people continued dancing, drowsing, and dying.
A month had passed since Frau Troffea had begun dancing in the street. Over four hundred people had joined her in her macabre dance. The bodies were left to rot in the streets because people were afraid that if they approached; they too would begin to dance. The dancing plague of 1518 had claimed over four hundred lives in Strasbourg. Many of the participants in this dance of the dead had died of exhaustion, heart failure, and stroke. A few died due to being trampled by the dancing crowd. To this day, no one is certain as to the cause of the plague that drove poor Frau Troffea to the center of the street.
Written by EmpyrealInvective