Although Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), a prominent English physician, conducted studies of a nervous disease causing spasmodic movements of the face or limbs, the better-known name of «Sydenham’s chorea» is St. Vitus’s dance. St. Vitus’s dance, a neurological disease earlier attributed to rheumatic fever, has, so to speak, waltzed itself into a permanent niche in the English language.
Saint Vitus, born in the third century, was the son of a Sicilian nobleman. Together with his nurse, Crescentia, and his tutor, Modestus, he suffered martyrdom as a child during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. Although St. Vitus was not known to suffer from chorea, his name was given to the nervous disease St. Vitus’s Dance because Vitus was thought to have power over epilepsy.
For some unscientific reason, a belief arose in the seventeenth century that dancing around a statue of St. Vitus would ensure good health and protect against disease. In Germany, where the custom was particularly prevalent, the dancing sometimes reached a stage of frenzy, but there are no attested reports of beneficial results. St. Vitus’s name was invoked as a protection from nervous disorders and from illness caused by bites of dogs and serpents.
Although chorea, a Greek word meaning «dance», is not a word easily recognized by everyone, its sister words are well known: choreography, the art of composing dance arrangements for the stage, and the more evocative chorine, a chorus girl.