Sundance faves: Mass hysteria sweeps a girls dance team in “The Fits”

In early 2012, 18 teenagers in Le Roy, New York, became mysteriously ill with an affliction that can be most easily described as tics. Over the course of a few weeks the victims of the strange illness — mostly female — were suddenly overcome by convulsions. They began involuntarily flailing their arms and legs, humming, and falling down to the floor in what appeared to be seizures. The outbreak began with members of the cheerleading squad, slowly spreading to teen girls in the school not affiliated with the team. One boy was also affected, as was a 36-year-old woman. The affliction became a media sensation — what was happening to the girls and why? A neurologist came on the Today Show and gave his opinion, a widely held if controversial one. He described the affliction as, “mass hysteria.”

Here’s what the movie is about: 

First-time director Anna Rose Holmer focuses her feature film The Fits on, amongst other things, the spread of a similar contagious yet undefined outbreak. In her film, which takes place in a YMCA-style recreation center in Cincinnati’s West End, an 11-year-old tomboy named Toni (played by Royalty Hightower) decides she wants to trade in her boxing gloves and long braids for the hair flowing, estrogen-filled, sorority of the rec center’s dance team, the Lionesses. What Toni doesn’t expect is the sweep of fits that infect the Lionesses like a plague.

Beginning with the most popular older girls and trickling down to the youngest girls on the squad, the fits takeover quickly — a girl will be dancing one moment, then suddenly she’ll be convulsing on the floor, the rest of the team screaming and taking videos. The cause of the Lionesses’ sickness can’t be pinpointed and the audience observes the flailing, the carrying-on, with Toni’s curious detachment. Is there something in the water? Something in the soil? Are they faking it?

What we do understand, just as Toni understands, is that these fits become a right of passage, a sort of club that breaks the dance squad into those who have the fits and those who don’t. When Toni weighs in with her opinion on the outbreak her friend, who has had the fits, puts her swiftly in her place saying, “What do you know about it?” 

Mass hysteria is still kind of a huge mystery: 

The history of “mass hysteria” is an interesting one with more questions than answers. Most of those questions are echoes of the ones already asked above: Is there something in the water? Something in the soil? Are they faking it?

History has seen these mania-style plagues many times over, and while “hysteria” is the gendered word used to negatively define those plagues, the presence of these plagues is irrefutable. There was a dance mania that gripped towns and villages in the Middle Ages, in which people would dance in the streets for hours, months, days, often until they died. There was also a mania that swept nunneries for hundreds of years, and saw nuns inexplicably meowing like cats. More recently in the 1960s, a Tanzanian girls’ school was shut down for two months due to a laughing plague.

In the United States, these periods of mass hysteria have often been (like with Le Roy and the fictitious Lionesses) found amongst groups of young girls, very often teams. As the New York Times reported back in 2012, “Cheerleaders frequently come up in case histories of mass psychogenic illness at schools, partly because psychogenic outbreaks often start with someone of high social status. But it might also be that their enviable unity is what makes them more susceptible. In 2002, 10 students, 5 of them cheerleaders, in a rural town in North Carolina suffered from nonepileptic seizures and fainting spells. In 1952, the Associated Press reported that 165 members of the Tigerettes cheerleading squad from Monroe, La., fainted before halftime at a high-school football game in nearby Natchez, Miss.”

So why does this happen, seemingly, much more to women? No exaggeration, but signs point to the patriarchy. 

Soooo, why does mass hysteria happen to women? 

Professor John Waller explained this in an article for The Guardian saying, “Most experts now think that . . . girls and women are more likely to succumb due to the frustrations of living in families and societies dominated by men. Others argue that hysteria offers distressed women a legitimate reason to ‘check out’ from the indignities of daily life.” Whether his assessment is accurate is open to discussion, but it certainly is food for thought.

All of this is at least tangentially touched upon in The Fits. While the boys at the rec center are able to take their aggression out in the boxing ring, the girls are expected to conform to standards of beauty and the structured rules of the dance team. There is also the deep sense of unity amongst the Lionesses, a bond made only tighter by the presence of the fits.

While The Fits likely won’t be breaking any box office records, there is a lot to admire here. It is a film directed by a young woman, starring a very young woman, and all about a community of African American girls. Roylaty Hightower, in the starring role, is a tiny tour de force, and director Holmer is likely someone we’ll see big things from in the future. The film is also visually beautiful, choreographed (even in the non-dance scenes) very much like a dance. Oh, and it stars a handful of first time actors most of them from the Q Kidz dance team.

This is not the first piece of recent artwork to tackle this topic (Megan Abbott’s novel The Fever was based upon the situation in Le Roy) but it certainly visualizes the experience in a totally new way. It also raises an incredibly important question: How far will you go to fit in?

The Fits is right now showing at Sundance and will be in our theaters come summertime.

(Image via Sundance)

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