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Song of the Day for June 24: Dancing in the Streets

Rock star David Bowie performs on stage at Wembley Stadium, London, July 13, 1985, during the Live Aid famine relief rock concert. (AP Photo/Joe Schaber)

So much happened during the Middle Ages. The fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Black Death, which wiped out one-third of Europe’s population. One overlooked phenomenon took place June 24, 1374 when residents of Aachen, Germany started dancing in the streets. The dancing spread to other towns in medieval Europe.

This wasn’t a three-minute dance or a half-hour exercise class. This was a “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” kind of marathon dance. The dancers danced for hours, days and weeks. They even danced when they didn’t want to. The outbreak was known as St. John’s Dance.

It wasn’t the first time medieval Europe witnessed an outbreak of happy feet. The first was recorded in 1020 when 18 peasants did their best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Another outbreak happened in July 1518 in Strasburg, Germany where a woman danced uncontrollably for six days; 100 residents joined her by the end of the week and 400 after a month. Many people died from heart attacks and exhaustion.

Theories abound why it happened. Some blamed the dancing on mass ergot from poisoned rye, which caused LSD-like hallucinations. That didn’t explain why the dancing happened in places where there was no rye. Some researchers believe it was mass hysteria or a psychogenic illness brought on by famine, disease and other hardships during the Middle Ages.

Blame it on the beat, not mass hysteria when people lose control during “Dancing in the Street.” Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter wrote the song. Martha and the Vandellas had a hit with it in 1964, when it reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100. So many others covered it. David Bowie and Mick Jagger did it for Live Aid in 1985. The version reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a popular music video.