Book review, Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets : A History of Collective Joy


Book Review
Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets : A History of Collective Joy
First Edition, 2007, Hardcover, 336 pages

History is generally the history of conflict. One author may choose to look at oppressor and oppressed, or adversaries at war. Another author may focus on science versus superstition. The new book by biologist and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich tells the history of people who want to have a good time, festivity and celebration, versus the leaders and bosses who consider it dangerous when the common folks get unruly.

Barbara Ehrenreich She begins the book with the idea, revisited in later chapters as well, that religion is traditionally practiced with song and dance. Anthropologists and sociologists have noticed this similarity among popular cultures of India, Africa, the Native Americans, the aborigines of Australia, the ancient Greeks. It is considered a sacred ritual when people move rhythmically, possibly wearing costumes, stamping their feet, achieving frenzy and ecstasy.

Then the party-poopers arrive. Not infreqently, they work for the government, or someone else's goverment, or someone else's organized religion. The party-poopers come to denounce the sacred revelry as savage and uncivilized, liable to lead to breach of the peace, the devil's work, indecent and obscene, the demise of the work ethic, incitement to riot and rebellion. The British occupiers of Trinidad banned the playing of drums. [Pages 177-178] The ancient Roman state repressed the cult of Isis. [Page 55]

One of the most historically effective examples was when the Catholic Church in the 13th and 14th centuries prohibited feasting and partying in God's house. [Chapter 4] Church leaders were afraid that singing and dancing might give people the dangerous idea that they could approach divinity directly, and the church was "determined to maintain its monopoly over human access to the divine." [84] In a compromise between "obedience and piety" and "riotous good times" [78], the festivities were not banned but rather relocated to outside of the church ediface, establishing the European custom known as carnival. [Chapter 5]

The age of explorers with wooden ships brought about the dual destructive agents of colonialism and missionaries. The Europeans were both repulsed and frightened to encounter "primitive" people, often believers in animism or polytheism, dancing convulsively and apparently "possessed." Europeans could at least understand promiscuity and cannibalism, although they did approve of them, but ecstatic dance they could neither approve nor understand. [6] It was a matter of "guns gainst drums", the case of "imperialism encounters ecstasy." [155]

The author writes: "So civilization, as humans have known it for thousand of years, has this fundamental flaw: It tends to be hierarchical, with some class or group wielding power over the majority, and hierarchy is antagonistic to the festive and ecstatic tradition." [253]

The author borrows the premise of sociologist Max Weber that Calvinism has been a huge force for making people incapable of experiencing spontaneous enjoyment. [144] As a matter of principle, Calvinism seeks to maintain a certain level of "anxiety". [108] This effect corresponds well, Weber realized, to capitalism's new a "sink or swim" economic system. [143] Post-Reformation theologians assigned themselves the task of "killing carnival". [101]

Dr. Ehrenreich finds that traditional forms of celebration, ecstatic song-and-dance religion, street festivals, are reborn in some of our contemporary phenomena. Audiences of today's rock concerts (Chapter 10) and sports events (Chapter 11) tend to go nuts because they are driven to participate; they refuse to be mere spectators. Ecstatic spontaneity is found in "African-derived American music: blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and jazz." [164] The festival is there when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson associates bodily movement with religious worship. [218]

However, make no mistake -- the Fascist and Nazi rallies (Chapter 9) were quite the opposite of this tendency toward celebration. The latter were "heavily policed" [202] events intended to expunge individuality and make the people into obedient spectators. They used banners and other symbols to line up the people behind nationalism and hierarchy. The "prototype for the fascist rallies" [188] was developed during the French Revolution by Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jacobins, who were concerned with control over individuals, and considered enjoyment to be a waste of time. [190] The genuine celebration mocks and resists hierarchy and regimentation. So, you see, not all kinds of the madness of crowds are created equal.

Having offered a method of classification for "fascist spectacles", [181] the author identifies spectacles operating elsewhere. There is a parallel in the subjugation of women, e.g., 1950s-era rules against girls playing sports in school, effectively teaching girls to be spectators. [213] One may compare this to the practice in a militaristic state of giving the people "the military as entertainment" [194] and giving soldiers the "status of performers". [196] Some claification is available by borrowing from the work of philosopher Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle . [250]

Science tries to understand the tendency toward spontaneous celebration. In the 20th century, anthropologists decided to stop calling other societies "savage" and began an attempt to identify the social "functions" of rituals. [10] Other scientists supposed that our brains have a neurological basis for ritual. [26] The anthropologist Victor Turner insisted that festivity should be merely peripheral, merely "liminal" [22] to society, not central to its everyday operation. Therefore, the 1960s hippies annoyed Turner by projecting an "ongoing ecstatic community" while also challenging society's institutions. [221-222]

As did Nietzsche, Ehrenreich uses the symbol of Dionysis to represent our wild side. In Greek mythology, and in the drama Bacchae by Euripides, the aging king Pentheus of Thebes forbade the worship of Dionysus, the god of festivity, of wine, of theater.

In the book's conclusion, Ehrenreich weighs the future and the "possibility of revival." [247] She offers a pessmistic foreshadowing:

"In the at least three-thousand-year-old struggle between Pentheus and Dionysus -- between popes and dancing peasants, between Puritans and carnival-goers, between missionaries and the practitioners of indigenous estatic danced religions -- Pentheus and his allies seem to have finally prevailed. Not only has the possibility of collective joy been largely marginalized to the storefront churches of the poor and the darkened clubs frequented by the young, but the very source of this joy -- other people, including strangers -- no longer holds much appeal." [248]

Unfortunately, what we are lacking, the author says, is a social movement:

"There is no powerful faction in our divided world committed to upholding the glories of the feast and dance." [249]

Let us see if we can encourage the launch of the right kind of social movement. Let it be a new movement that will recollect the essence of the ancient cult of Dionysis, the medieval Feast of Fools, the maypole dance, and perhaps even the Summer of Love and the Woodstock Generation.

- - - - - - Book review by Mike Lepore for


Nonfiction : History : Barbara Ehrenreich - Dancing in the Streets : A History of Collective Joy
Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, New York
ISBN-10: 0-8050-5723-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-5723-2

Book Description from the Publisher's Press Release

From the bestselling social commentator and cultural historian, a fascinating exploration of one of humanity's oldest traditions: the celebration of communal joy.

In the acclaimed Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. Although sixteenth-century Europeans viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials drove the festivities into the streets, the prelude to widespread reformation: Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, European colonizers wiped out native dance rites. The elites' fear that such gatherings would undermine social hierarchies was justified: the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and uprisings from the Caribbean to the American plains. Yet outbreaks of group revelry persist, as Ehrenreich shows, pointing to the 1960s rock-and-roll rebellion and the more recent "carnivalization" of sports.

Original, exhilarating, and deeply optimistic, Dancing in the Streets concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled to share our joy and therefore able to envision, even create, a more peaceable future.