DANCING IN THE STREETS: A History of Collective Joy

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. $26.

Reviewed by C.  Bertelsen


“Dancing in the Streets” is, frankly, a brilliant book. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of “Nickel and Dimed,” “Blood Rites,” and other journalistic commentaries on human society, is not an academic, although she documents everything as would an academic. Nevertheless, some readers might quibble over this omission or that in this highly readable and multilayered book. But the truth is that Ehrenreich probes a hollow place in contemporary society and comes up with some intriguing explanations about why we are who we are today. By synthesizing a large number of seemingly disparate ideas and sources, she speaks with authority about the increasing absence of collective joy in Western society, tracing the loss of what appears to be a basic human need.

Using a chronological framework, Ehrenreich moves through western history, beginning with the prehistoric roots of archaic ecstasy, passing through the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, Puritanism and its associated military reform, colonialism, fascism, the rock rebellion of the 1960s, and ending with the modern-day frenzy surrounding sports. Along the way, she touches on the oppression of women and ancient female-generated dance and worship.

Ehrenreich starts by examining the ecstatic ritual surrounding the worship of the Greek god, Dionysius, and the impact of that ritual on the everyday lives of the ancient Greeks. Hinting that early Christian rites bore no resemblance to today’s staid “sit-down” Christian worship services and that dancing played a role in those rituals, similar to Greek and Jewish practice, she proposes a number of credible reasons for the gradual decline of communal joy and festivities in the West and in areas colonized by Westerners.

One of the paramount reasons for this decline lies with the early Roman Catholic Church cracking down on sacred dance, which likely took place within the worship space. Dancing and festivals thus moved from the worship space to the streets. In the beginning, both noble elites and their vassals and peasants all celebrated feasts days and other events communally. But as time went on, the elite and the powerful found the raucous behavior associated with the festivals, particularly in the Lord of Misrule traditions and the antagonistic jokes made by the peasants about the nobility, to be disturbing enough to begin withdrawing from the public celebrations. More and more, the nobility and powerful Church authorities attempted to control these festivals that occurred with regularity through the year—one out of every four days during the Middle Ages was an official religious feast day or holiday of some sort. Carnival became a primary target for such control.

In another fascinating discussion, Ehrenreich shows how Puritanism helped to squelch the Carnivalesque behavior of the common soldier. Prior to the introduction of Calvinism, soldiers spent a lot of time sitting around, drinking and carousing. The seventeenth-century English soldier and politician, Oliver Cromwell, changed all that by demanding constant drilling and other tasks that left soldiers little time for anything untoward and undisciplined. The military of today reflects those changes.

Calvinism affected society in other ways as well. The number of suicides in the Swiss canton of Zurich increased sharply in the sixteenth century, just as Calvinism took hold. Prior to the sixteenth century, few remarks about depression turned up in historical records. Claiming that suicide is a sure marker for depression, the author documents these conclusions well and suggests that communal ecstatic ritual and festivities may well have acted as a cure for depression over the ages.

The signs of yearning for collective joy appear everywhere in our modern, individualistic society, but manifest themselves most vividly with the extreme preoccupation with sports. College football fans in particular represent a concrete example of Ehrenreich’s basic theory. With body painting, chants and songs, outlandish costumes and masks, and even just T-shirts in school colors, any American college town in autumn revels in a spectacle that could very well have transpired during Carnival week in the Middle Ages. And that’s the thing—society today is a “society of the spectacle,” of passive observance of organized activity.

If the book sports any defect, it lies with sporadic ponderous wordspeak and occasional convoluted sentence structure.

“Dancing in the Streets” is brilliant, profound, disturbing, exhilarating, and revolutionary. If nothing else, it will cause you to look differently at the sports fans in your life.

© 2008, originalyl published in The Roanoke Times.

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