The Dangers of Dancing

This post comes out of one I wrote several months ago on The Hazards of Horse Riding. In that post I considered the tension between the necessity to ride a horse (to travel and for men to develop a manly body) and the health risks that this posed to the male body. While I was writing that post I couldn’t help but notice that there were similar discussions about dancing. This post is just a few thoughts and collected quotes about this as I have not had time yet to work through this is any detail.

On the one hand dancing was thought to be beneficial to the body as exercise: Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse (1579) explained that ‘Tennis, Daunsyng, Runnyng, Wrastlyng, Ridyng upon greate Horses, were ordeyned aswell for the state of mens health, as for pleasure’.1 Exercise was good for the body as it stirred up the natural heat, consumed superfluous humours, Bullien claimed ‘hee whych doeth abstayne from Exercyse, shall lacke the joys of Health, and quietnesse, both of body and minde.’2

L0029216 A spider on its web, woodcut, 1547

The surgical treatise of Ambrose Parè even suggested that dancing was a ‘wonderfull and extravagant’ cure for the bite of a ‘Tarentula’. The venom of this spider was thought to be so virulent that without speedy remedy the victim would fall down deprived of all sense and motion and would either succumb to death or permanent madness.3 The cure could only be achieved, he explained, through dancing:

‘they fetch Fidlers and Pipers of divers kinds, who by playing and piping may make Musicke, at the hearing where , he which was downe by reason of the venemous bit, rises cheerfully and dances so long to their measures and tunes,  untill by the painfull & continued shaking and agitation of the whole body, all the malignity is dissipated by transpiration and sweates.’4

On the other hand, dancing, as with horse riding, was thought to pose particular dangers to both the male and female body. For women, dancing was thought to be one of the causes of a prolapsed uterus.5 Moreover, dancing was hazardous to pregnancy. It was widely acknowledged that dancing during pregnancy could cause a miscarriage: ‘all fetid smells, falls, blows, lifting, carrying, dancing, running, riding or any other outward violence, may be the Cause of Abortion.’6

L0051307 A man and woman dance outside a tavernMen who danced were at risk of developing hernias, of all kinds, according to Joseph La Charrière’s Treatise of Chirurgical Operations  (1696). He explained that ‘violent blows, rude shakings, long courses, excess of venery, dancing, leaping, and generally all efforts are capable, not only of moving the Guts, but also of relaxing their connexions, hence Posts, Postilians, Dancers, Leapers, &c are troubled often with them.’7 He continued by noting that crying and coughing and too frequent breathing also caused hernias and so musicians and singers were also particularly prone to suffer them.8

In addition to hernias, Alexander Read cautioned that ‘immoderate motion after eating, dancing, riding, fencing, &c. whereby rumbling in the Stomach is caused, concoction is hindred; crude Chyle is carried out of the Stomach,and the heat is forced outwards’ would breed kidney and bladder stones, which as we have seen could be very painful and problematic.9

The medical literature of the early modern period, as this and many of my other blog posts suggest, was often complex and contradictory in the advice it offered. In this instance the idea that dancing was both a beneficial exercise and potential hazard was not necessarily contradictory. It was rather expected that men and women would dance in moderation, they would not move too violently or excessively, which would put them in harms way. Moreover, they were expected to know when it was appropriate to act in such ways; for women it was clear that pregnancy was a time when you should abstain from dancing too much, or at all.

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1. William Bullein, Bullein’s bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soareness, and woundes … (London, 1579), p.219.

2. Ibid, p. 219.

3. Ambrose Parè, The Workes of that famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey … (London, 1634), p. 49.

4. Ibid, p. 49.

5. Ibid, p. 934.

6.Robert Johnson, Praxis Medicinae Reformata: or, the practice of physick … (London, 1700), p.249.

7. Joseph La Charrière’s, A Treatise of Chirurgical Operations  (London, 1696),p. 68.

8. Ibid, p, 68.

9. Alexander Read, Chirurgorum Comes … (London, 1687), p.632.

© Copyright Jennifer Evans all rights reserved.

5 Responses so far.

  1. Sara says:
    This idea that something could both be bad for you in some circumstances and good in others is something I have seen in my work on menstruation in the early modern era too. I think you’re exactly right to say that moderation in everything is at the heart of humoural medical thinking.

    Just as dancing was thought to bring or a miscarriage or a uterine prolapse if done too vigorously, so too doctors warned that you should be aware that it could make your period start unexpectedly! Just what you don’t need on a night out . I mention this in my 2008 article on sanitary provision in the era which is free to download on the Loughborough University Institutional repository if anyone wants a read.

    Sara

    • admin says:
      Yes I was going to include that as well, but thought you might be a better person to talk to us about that. Is there a link to your article ? That I could include – I could update the post to link to it.
  2. Sara B says:
    Your post made me go back to read about one of my most beloved stories from sixteenth-century France – the Strasbourg Dancing Plague of 1518. Dancing’s not just dangerous, it is (obviously, I suppose) contagious too!
    • admin says:
      Ah that makes things clearer – on the Wellcome Images site when I looked up dancing there was a picture of people being restrained at it was a dancing mania – I didn’t include it because I didn’t know enough about the context.
  3. Sara says:
    the link is here. Article available to download free.

    https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/10271

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