Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
Metropolitan Books / 322 pages / $26
In the 21st century, most people have experienced at least a watered-down version of what author Barbara Ehrenreich calls collective joy. Many are susceptible to flashes of communal ecstasy in stadiums or auditoriums, nightclubs or public parks, at concerts and dances and sports events. Participation in such familiar - not to say cliched - rituals can spark a vague but intensely pleasurable group consciousness. Feeling that we're part of something bigger than ourselves is something that doesn't happen as often as it should, according to Ehrenreich.
In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, she spends nearly as much time mourning the absence of ecstatic rituals in modern times as she does taking note of their fantastic past: Greek mystery cults, Roman emasculation rituals, self-flagellation fads, "dancing priests" and their rowdy flocks, bawdy anti-clerical burlesques and medieval dance manias.
In Ehrenreich's telling, dance has been a key element in this group behavior almost from the start. Ancient hunting rituals, for example, included rhythmic movements meant to intimidate the prey. "Taken individually, humans are fragile, vulnerable, clueless creatures," she writes. "But banded together through rhythm and enlarged through the artifice of masks and sticks, the group can feel - and perhaps appear - to be as formidable as any nonhuman beast. When we speak of transcendent experience in terms of 'feeling part of something larger than ourselves,' it may be this ancient many-headed pseudocreature that we unconsciously invoke."
Combining thorough research with her tart, skeptical eye, Ehrenreich constructs a vivid narrative of early Christianity and "deliberately nurtured techniques of ecstasy." By the Middle Ages, these fervent rituals were a regular feature of peasant life. "[O]ne out of every four days of the year was an official holiday of some sort, usually dedicated to a mix of religious ceremonies and more or less unsanctioned carryings-on," she writes. "So, despite the reputation of what are commonly called 'the Middle Ages' as a time of misery and fear, the period from the 13th to the 15th century can be seen - at least in comparison to the puritanical times that followed - as one long outdoor party, punctuated by bouts of hard labor."
Of course, it didn't take long for church authorities to target these celebrations as breeding grounds of heresy (not to mention the attendant sexual promiscuity and property damage). "Nothing is more threatening to a hierarchical religion than the possibility of ordinary laypeople's finding their own way into the presence of the gods," Ehrenreich notes.
In her best-selling book Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich documented the day-to-day lives of minimum-wage workers. So it's no surprise that Dancing in the Streets focuses on the sociological effect of the festive ritual rather than its spiritual thrust: "Whatever social category you had been boxed into - male or female, rich or poor - carnival was a chance to escape from it," she writes. Throughout, she is less concerned with personal transcendence than with political transformation - the revolutionary potential embedded in ecstatic practices. With characteristic frankness, she identifies the suppression of community rituals and festivals as her larger theme. But her anti-authoritarian edge serves the book's first half far better than it does the second.
Ehrenreich's rhetoric reaches a fever pitch in her description of France in 1790; she gets caught up in the public celebrations on the first anniversary of the revolution, and her unabashed intellectual enthusiasm electrifies these pages. "With the shared wine and food, the dancing that wound through whole cities and out into the fields, this has to have been one of the great moments, in all of human history, to have been alive."
Perhaps inevitably, after that peak a somewhat jaded air creeps in. Ehrenreich angrily points to the cruel legacy of colonial rule and its ruinous effect on local religions. She contends that "Europeans generally found themselves in furious opposition to the communal pleasures and rituals of the people whose lives they intruded upon."
But condemnation by civil and religious authorities was not the only force working against collective joy. In the 19th century, Ehrenreich suggests, there's a rough parallel to be drawn between the growing acceptance of depression as a malady and the gradual decline of unrestrained public festivities. "Urbanization and the rise of a competitive market-based economy favored a more anxious and isolated sort of person - potentially prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures." Frustratingly, this ripe idea is treated not as an avenue of exploration but almost as an aside.
By the time it reaches the 20th century, Dancing in the Streets starts to feel a bit rushed and rather cursory. "The mall may be a dreary place compared to a medieval English fair." Public expressions of communal joy haven't been suppressed by political or religious authority as often as they've been subsumed by pop culture. Ehrenreich nails the manipulative spectacle of Nazi rallies in a deft phrase ("ersatz participation"). And she draws an instantly graspable distinction between an audience, where "each individual is, ideally, unaware of other spectators except as a mass," and a crowd, where "people are aware of one another's presence and ... sometimes emboldened by their numbers to do things they would never venture on their own."
But for the most part, the later chapters of Dancing in the Streets lack the animating spark of Ehrenreich's earlier populist arguments, relying instead on received wisdom and a few incredible generalizations. ("From the nineteenth century on, all forms of Western music were being consumed by immobile audiences.") Even her evocation of the hedonistic rituals of the 1960s counterculture is curiously ho-hum. "[Y]oung people began to assemble all the ancient ingredients of carnival: They 'costumed' in torn jeans, tie-dyed T-shirts, granny dresses, feathers, and billowing scarves. They painted their faces and perfumed themselves with patchouli. They shared beer, wine, vegetarian snacks. They passed around joints. Young anti-war activists, like myself, could take a holiday from our usual work of persuasion and organizing, because peace was already in the air."
Like many early baby boomers, Ehrenreich typically underrates or ignores the significance of the decade that came after the 60s. The disco boom of the late 70s precisely fits the ancient criteria of ecstatic ritual with its costumes and customs, its hypnotic rhythms and aura of sexual ambiguity. Perhaps it's the white-suited John Travolta of Saturday Night Fever, not Mick Jagger, who most resembles a modern Dionysus. Yet the rich underexplored tradition of disco, dance music cults and rave scenes rates only a few sentences. Maybe you had to be there. Ehrenreich put herself into her previous two books, pulling off a high-wire balance of first-person reporting and social commentary in Nickel and Dimed and its sequel, Bait and Switch. Though her latest book presents a solid and provocative academic overview of its subject, too much of the current-day material reads like library research. Dancing in the Streets might have achieved transcendence if the author had been a face in the crowd.
Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines and Money." He wrote this review for the Los Angeles Times.