Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books, 2006, 320 pages, $26.


It has been so suppressed that we lack even a convenient phrase for the desire for collective joy, expressed throughout the ages in ecstatic dancing, costuming, and feasting. Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Ehrenreich uncovers the deep origins of communal revelry in human biology and culture. She shows that they were indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the early and medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion." Ultimately, church officials succeeded in driving the festivities out of the churches and into the streets, where they became "carnival." Reformation Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, and European colonizers outlawed native dances. Elite fears that collective festivities could undermine hierarchies were not entirely unjustified: the festive tradition inspired French revolutionary crowds and countless uprisings of slaves and colonized peoples from the Caribbean to West Africa to the American plains. Yet group ecstacy survives. Ehrenreich concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled almost instinctively to share our joy.


"Social critic and bestselling author Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) teases out the many incarnations of sanctioned public revelry, starting with the protofeminist oreibasia, or Dionysian winter dance, in antiquity, and from there covering trance, ancient mystery cults, and carnival, right up to the rock and roll and sports-related mass celebrations of our own day.... Ehrenreich writes with grace and clarity in a fascinating, wide-ranging, and generous account." -- Publishers Weekly

"Barbara Ehrenreich's lively and compelling history of collective joy...reminds us that ecstatic dancing and Christianity were implicated a lot more closely -- and for much longer than the elders...might care to admit. In fact, early Christianity's roots were deeply entangled with those of the Dionysian cults that also bedeviled the Roman authorities, so much so that Ehrenreich sees evidence of significant similarity between their two wine-providing deities, Jesus and Dionysus. 'Both...upheld what has been called a hedonic vision of community, based on egalitarianism and the joyous immediacy of human experience -- as against the agonic reality of the cruelly unequal and warlike societies they briefly favored with their presence.'" -- Salon


Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 14 books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed, and Bait and Switch. She has been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine and a frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation.


Barbara Ehrenreich sounds tired. "Your book is wonderful," I say, although I know she has heard this often in recent days. "Such great writing. I got the impression that you might rank the mirror with the invention of the wheel." I quote one of her memorable lines: "'Mirrors don't show us our "selves," only what others see.'"

"Yah, strange things, mirrors."

"Did you know," I say, "they were used in South America by the European colonizers to bribe the natives into working? For a look in the mirror they would work a day in the mines."

"Really? The Indians were just so amazed?"

"Yes, such magic. People were more easily made happier and dazzled. Do you think raves, the club scene, and happenings and rock concerts and love-ins, carnivals, and such are expressions of longing for that earlier period in history when collective joy and communal identity were the norm?"

"Oh, yeah. I wouldn't even say they are longings for something lost. I think there is something hard-wired in us to greatly enjoy group events, even to the point of ecstasy. When I ask audiences if they've ever danced late into the night to the point of experiencing self-loss, or been to some kind of religious or sporting event where they felt caught up in the group and experienced this sense of self-loss, most people raise their hands. You've probably felt it at some point in your life. Right?"

"Yes, quite often and quite formally. I should explain, my family is from a small Eastern European country -- a tiny place. Its major holiday, to this day, larger than Christmas or New Year's, is the Summer Solstice. Probably because the best time in the group's history was before they became a revolving door for every other neighboring nation to dominate for centuries. And that period was the pagan. We're talking prior to the 11th Century. My countrymen still cherish that Dionysian period."

"What do you do on Solstice?"

"Imagine a pagan festival: there are huge bonfires, athletic contests, special foods, alcohol, performances, a great deal of communal singing, and endless dancing. They celebrate their tribal roots to this day that same way. Also, back then, anyone who had been baptized, for instance by the Teutonic knights, would go back in the river and wash it off."

Barbara laughs. "Oh, really! To restore their pagan status?"

"Yes. They just sort of humored the proselytizers. And to a great extent that is still in the core identity. The ring that identifies a member of the group is a design that's ancient and absolutely pagan. It's kind of funny, too; a great poetic work that is studied, preserved, and revered as a cultural tome is basically a vast, multivolume collection of dirty limericks, centuries old, bawdy and rowdy in the extreme."

"That's fascinating. Somebody was recently telling me that the reason the Irish dance in that stiff way, as in Riverdance, with their arms straight down by their sides, is because the British banned dancing."

"I've heard that too from Irish friends. I believe that ballet may have originated in a similar way, that the Church banned dancing on your feet. It left loopholes. If you were on your toes, technically, it wasn't dancing. All these associations flooded my brain as I was reading your book. It's so associative.... You cover so much territory in your work."

"I labored on this one a long while. It took eight or nine years. I was writing other books at the same time. What got me riveted was the anthropologists who point out that there is a set of things people have done together since time immemorial -- feasting, costuming, making music, and dancing -- that's almost universal."

"You make the point in your book that human consciousness -- its experience of itself -- may have been extremely different long ago, that people saw themselves in terms of the group or tribe, and that they were all, like Californians, looking for some fun, spontaneous experiences. Which is why, when the spirit took them, they danced and frolicked. Including the early Christians in their worship."

"I was really surprised by that, yes. But it's undeniable. I had thought of the early Christians as fairly staid. Yet this is apparently not the case."

"They sound to be much more like the so-called charismatic Christians of today in their worship. Or black Pentecostals. It was essentially a 'danced religion,' influenced perhaps by Greek Dionysiac worship. In fact, you make the startling observation that Jesus and Dionysus had a lot in common ."

"Surprisingly, yes. They are itinerant charismatics. Both scorned ordinary existence -- just working and living and producing. They advocated leaving that behind, Dionysus calling people to ecstatic forms of worship. And Jesus saying, 'Don't worry about plowing and harvesting or where your next meal is coming from, just follow me.' There is even peculiar archaeological evidence that suggests there were overlaps in who actually worshipped them. The symbols get mixed up in the archaeological record, as if there was some confusion. Remember, in the Hellenistic world, they were much more open to others' deities."

"How else were Jesus and Dionysus similar?"

"They were both opposed to war and violence. They were very democratic. Dionysus's primary appeal was to women, who were considered lower class within ancient Greek society. Jesus, too, had a very strong appeal to women. Both were remarkably asexual beings and don't have regular consorts or lasting involvements. They are each associated with wine. Jesus can make it out of water, and Dionysus is the god of wine. Each also holds out the possibility of a direct and personal relationship through participation in his rites. And each is the son of a great father-god: Zeus and the Hebrew god Yahweh. Each has a mortal mother, both are healers and work miracles. Each was persecuted by secular authorities: Dionysus by Pentheus, Jesus by Pontius Pilate. They upheld the poor and challenged the prevailing social hierachries. Both were victims themselves, both held out the promise of life beyond death."

"And Christians danced."

"To lose themselves in ecstasy, to let go of their physical boundaries. Yes. As did nuns newly inducted and monks upon taking their vows...Deacons on St. Stephen's Day, priests on St. John's Day, choirboys on Innocents' Day. Parishioners danced in churches. It was a long-standing Christian custom."

"But Church authorities eventually turned against these practices."

"They did. They condemned and forbade dancing as unseemly, disruptive, lewd, and gradually forced it out of the churches into the churchyards or squares, even cemeteries. Plays, too, and comedies that satirized and mocked authority. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, it's all banned, and the goal becomes to have a fun-free life."

"And Satan is depicted with the tail and hoof and horns of Dionysus."

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