In 1518, the dancing plague struck Strausbourg. A woman took to the streets and danced until she collapsed from exhaustion, then rested and returned to dancing. Before long, she was joined by dozens of others. The number swelled to 400, all afflicted by the same mysterious urge to dance “long past the point of injury,” according to the encyclopedia. There was no music, just people silently shaking and shimmying, so the town brought in a band, thinking the plague would run its course. It went on for months, and people reportedly died from strokes and heart attacks.
At the time, people blamed demonic possession, cults, curses, and a failure to propitiate the patron saint of dancers. Historians have since hypothesized that citizens had ingested toxic mold, causing convulsions. The Encyclopedia Britannica noted that such outbreaks often “take place under circumstances of extreme stress.” That year the residents were struck with famine, smallpox, and syphilis.
According to one outlet, the hysteria ended “when the dancers were whisked away to a mountaintop shrine to pray for absolution.”
So for three hundred years, it seems that prayer has been the de facto solution for problems whose solutions seem beyond our immediate grasp.
I’m not much for reflections on a decade or best-of lists, but even as I danced my way into 2020 I couldn’t ignore how the year was off to a peculiar start. In the first week of the decade those closest to me were thrown a gamut of challenges: financial infidelity and deciding to leave a spouse; a business partner exiting the company abruptly and potentially pilfering clients; a roommate moving out and a toxic ex resurfacing; and someone else divulging how they were secretly talking to their ex again.
Naturally, I Googled 1518 to try to understand what the hell was going on.
In 1518, the year of the dancing plague, Saturn and Pluto were conjunct. Saturn governs structure, while Pluto rules power and transformation. The two link up every 33–38 years, each time in a different sign. This year, Saturn and Pluto will align in Capricorn on January 12th, with the optimistic Sun joining them the following day.
The last time Saturn and Pluto were conjunct in Capricorn the year was 1518 — in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, which was a rebirth of learning, literature, art, culture. (And apparently death by dancing.) This is quite literally once-in-a-lifetime astrology, amplified by a full moon lunar eclipse in Cancer on Friday the 10th, the first full moon of the year.
Even if you don’t ‘believe’ in astrology (which, hello, planets exist and orbit accordingly), I bet even you can agree that we live in weird, wild times. Check your seatbelts, ladies and gentlehumans, because we’re in for a ride.
As my friends the AstroTwins write, “Saturn rules tangible reality while Pluto governs our unconscious.” With these two in Capricorn, “integrity, responsibility and persistence” are paramount. “Fortify your foundations,” they advise. “There will be no cutting corners as the decade commences.”
Ultimately, “This mashup forces us to take an unblinking look at the stories we’ve been telling ourselves. How close to the truth are they actually?”
Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD. is a veritable storytelling bible, dissecting the tales we tell ourselves and those our culture sells us. The author combed the globe, retelling and recapitulating stories. The legends and fables feel remarkably urgent and true — in the same way we begin to believe our own myths about ourselves and society.
In times of strife or suffering, fiction has a way of delivering truer truths than nonfiction. We view unvarnished versions of ourselves on the pages.
In a chapter on self-preservation, Estés recounts “The Red Shoes,” wherein a poor motherless child made her own red shoes using cloth scraps. She’s dismayed when the handmade shoes were incinerated by the wealthy old woman who adopted her. The old woman then brought the child to the shoemaker for new shoes, and the child chose another red pair, “bright light crimson, bright like raspberries, bright like pomegranates,” which she loved so much, “that she could hardly think of anything else.”
Outside the church, someone commented on her “beautiful dancing shoes,” and the girl turned on her feet. Once she started dancing, she couldn’t stop. The old woman and her coachman pried the shoes off to make her legs still. The shoes were placed high on a shelf and the child was warned not to touch them ever again. But she longed for them.
We all know how that goes, right? Longing for that which harms us?
“Her glance became a gaze and her gaze became a powerful desire, so much so that the girl took the shoes from the shelf and fastened them on, feeling it would do no harm. But as soon as they touched her heel and toes, she was overcome by the urge to dance.”
Out the door she went! Down the road, through muddy fields, into the forest, over hills, through valleys, in rain and snow and sun and the darkest night: “But it was not good dancing. It was terrible dancing, and there was no rest for her.” In a churchyard, a spirit told her she would dance until her skin hung off her bones, until “there is nothing left of you but entrails dancing.”
The shoes fused to her, and the only way to stop the dancing was to cut off her feet — a symbol of mobility and freedom.
I owned a pair of red sequined shoes when I was a child — à la Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. A few years ago, a counselor warned me about what he called a “sparkle dance:” exhausting myself by trying to impress someone who was too stupid to even notice my twisting and twirling.
Estés writes that “the psychological truth in ‘The Red Shoes’ is that a woman’s meaningful life can be pried, threatened, robbed, or seduced away from her unless she holds on to or retrieves her basic joy and wild worth.”
Here’s the kicker, though: the girl brought this upon herself. She longed for the shoes. She put them on. We all do: “When she is starved, a woman will take any substitutes offered, including those that, like placebos, do absolutely nothing for her, as well as destructive and life-threatening ones that hideously waste her time and talents or expose her life to physical danger.”
The girl initially fastened her own shoes using scraps she procured, symbolizing a self-designed life. She traded her own creation for a tame life, and in this new, comfortable existence her sense of perception is dulled, “which leads to excess, which leads to loss of the feed, the platform on which we stand, our basis, a deep part of our instinctual nature that supports our freedom.”
The story is meant to illustrate “how a deterioration begins and what state we come to if we make no intervention in our own wildish behalf.”
I read Women Who Run With the Wolves when I began questioning whether I had outgrown the container that was my marriage and I re-read it years later when I had left that container. My marriage ended amicably, and nothing about it was bad, but I had become tame. I tried other interventions but it seemed the only way to reclaim a certain wildness was to leave. I worried what people would think: that we hadn’t tried hard enough, that I was selfish for choosing to be alone. “If you want to create, you have to sacrifice superficiality, some security, and often your desire to be liked, to draw up your most intense insights, your most far-reaching visions.”
I quickly realized that whatever people thought of me had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them and the societal stories we unquestioningly inherit.
“Any group, society, institution, or organization that encourages women to revile the eccentric; to be suspicious of the new and unusual; to avoid the fervent, the vital, the innovative; to impersonalize the personal, is asking for a culture of dead women.”
And yet I was so used to wearing ill-fitting shoes for so many years that I immediately reached for another pair. I engaged in a brief tryst with a man who strung me along for three months, and when it ended my feet were sore from dancing. If only he could just see how prettily I twisted and twirled! I listened carefully to his weekly existential crises, happily offered advice and input, frequented backyard barbecues and concerts with his friends, read books he recommended, and let him decline invites to literary readings and concerts I attended, going alone.
I even let him break up with me twice and change his mind twice. “It’s fine!” I insisted, tapping and turning on my feet. I was reluctant to admit that the new pair of shoes were just as uncomfortable as the last pair.
In November, I was finally, truly, irrevocably alone. I took three weeks off social media, refused to watch television, stopped making plans, and ceased reaching for distractions and substitutes.
I made an exception for the film Jojo Rabbit, seeing it solo and twice in three weeks. The film depicts a ten-year old boy in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. He discovers his mother Rosie Betzler (played by Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in the attic. The camera frequently cuts to Rosie’s shoes: red and white heeled Mary Janes with laces on the top and broguing on the toe.
“Life is a gift,” she tells her son in the midst of war. They are outside in the fresh air, the sun on their skin. She turns on her heels. “We must celebrate it. We must dance.”
As I danced until 2:30am on New Year’s Eve, alone but surrounded by friends, I realized there’s a difference between dancing yourself into a plague, long past the point of injury, and dancing to reclaim a wildness.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes how “Sometimes, it is difficult for us to realize when we are losing our instincts, for it is often an insidious process that does not occur all in one day, but rather over a long period of time. Too, the loss or deadening of instinct is often entirely supported by the surrounding culture, and sometimes even by other women who endure the loss of instinct as a way of achieving belonging in a culture that keeps no nourishing habitat for the natural woman.”
It’s easy to look back and see where I slipped into the sparkle dance, but harder to catch while in its midst. It’s easy to slide into oversleeping, overspending, overconsuming and overindulging. It’s even easier to spot it in other people — the ones who claim they’re dancing for themselves but look over their shoulder to see who’s watching. (“It is both a trap and a poison to have so-called friends who have the same injuries but no real desire to heal them.”) They twist self-help and professional advice to justify situations that keep them muted — if not psychically or creatively mutilated — in a job, a career, a relationship, or a city.
Some of us deaden ourselves to fall in line with a regime or culture that benefits from our ignorance or blindness, thinking we’ll benefit in turn. Others ignore the too-tight feeling in the toes of our shoes until we realize we’ve lost all our nails.
Estés advises readers to take their lives into their own hands and refuse to be captured. We do this by sharpening our instincts: examining the narratives we’ve been sold, dissecting the stories we adopted and co-opted blindly or blearily, interrogating the unquestioned assumptions and moving closer and closer to the truth.
“The real miracle of individuation and reclamation of Wild Woman is that we all begin the process before we are ready, before we are strong enough, before we know enough; we begin a dialogue with thoughts and feelings that both tickle and thunder within us. We respond before we know how to speak the language, before we know all the answers, and before we know exactly to whom we are speaking.”
When Jojo asks the Jewish girl in the attic what she will do first if the war ends, she says she will dance.
“Dance in red shoes,” Estés writes, “but make sure they’re the ones you’ve made by hand.”
A version of ‘The Dancing Plague’ originally appeared in the cedeling newsletter.