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Dancing in the Streets

A History of Collective Joy

Barbara Ehrenreich

Holt Paperbacks

Dancing in the Streets Download image

ISBN10: 0805057242
ISBN13: 9780805057249

Trade Paperback

336 Pages



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In Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite human inclination, one that is equally universal and deep-rooted, yet has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a convenient phrase for it: the desire for collective joy, expressed throughout the ages in ecstatic celebrations of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Ehrenreich uncovers the deep origins of communal revelry in human biology and culture. Although Europeans from the sixteenth century onward viewed mass festivities as foreign and "savage," Ehrenreich shows that they were in fact indigenous to the West, from the ancient Greeks' worship of Dionysus to the 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"). Following the same pattern of repression, Reformation Protestants criminalized carnival, Wahhabist Muslims battled ecstatic Sufism, and European colonizers wiped out native danced rituals. Elite fears that collective festivities would undermine social 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 a tradition so deeply ingrained is not easy to annihilate, Ehrenreich argues, pointing to recent outbreaks of group revelry, from rock'n'roll rebellion of the 1950s-'60s to the "carnivalization" of sports events in the 1980s-'90s. Dancing in the Streets concludes that we are innately social beings, impelled almost instinctively to share our joy, and therefore able to envision, perhaps even create, a more peaceful future.


Praise for Dancing in the Streets

"[Ehrenreich's] history of collective joy . . . is lurid and alluring . . . Combining thorough research with her tart, skeptical eye, Ehrenreich constructs a vivid narrative of early Christianity and 'deliberately nurtured techniques of ecstasy' . . . [Dancing in the Streets] presents a solid and provocative academic overview of its subject."—Mark Coleman, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"[A]n important subject . . . [Ehrenreich's] strength, as demonstrated by previous books about low-paying work (Nickel and Dimed) and war's emotional appeal (Blood Rites), is her reporter's nose for subject and information. She assembles juicy quotes, like Martin Luther on dancing: 'I can't bring myself to condemn it, unless it gets out of hand and so causes immoralities or excess . . . So long as it's done decently, I respect the rites and customs of weddings . . . and I dance anyway!'"—Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review

"Dancing in the Streets is a kind of companion piece to [Blood Rites] . . . [It's] ambitious . . . fascinating . . . [and] thought-provoking."—Dan Cryer, The Boston Globe

"A blend of history and speculation, the book is thoughtfully assembled and incisively written. Ehrenreich is always careful to note where evidence from the archives gives way to her own and other scholars' provocative but often persuasive musings. She has done copious research, and her book is filled with curious facts and deftly cherry-picked insights from other writers on the topic."—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

"This insightful book developed from a sense of loss: why have ecstatic rituals and festivities, once so universal, disappeared? In a celebratory examination of such occasions of 'collective joy'—historically manifested in transcendental, even trance-producing, revels of feasting, masking, and dancing—Ehrenreich delineates the age-old struggle between Dionysus and an array of repressive adversaries, and the ultimate ascendancy of the latter in recent centuries. A fascinating retrospective of the tradition extends from the earliest cave dwellers down through the ages of the ancient Mediterranean world, to the seasonal festivals of Europe and the glorious excitement of carnival, and at last to the rock concerts and sports extravaganzas of recent times."—Hugh Gildea, The Virginia Quarterly Review

"Ehrenreich looks to prehistory and that part of the human psyche that craves connection and ecstasy found in the rhythmic dances of the Greeks, the hunter-gatherers of Australia and the villagers of India . . . There exists a crew of us ink-stained wretches—a large crew, really—who believe that Ehrenreich is practicing journalism the way it ought to be practiced, with a curiosity that goes bone-deep and with lyrical writing. If you've somehow missed Ehrenreich before, Dancing in the Streets is a good place to start."—Susan Campbell, The Hartford Courant

"Things were a lot brighter in the Dark Ages. Western society spent a lot more time in pursuit of fun. We'd all been having a good time since the earliest sprouting of civilization, but we eventually lost the knack for partying. When we lost it and why is the scholarly, fascinating, latest work by this bestselling author . . . Ehrenreich successfully argues that without communal fun, no one can celebrate a fellowship with mankind. It makes you want to step out, grab your neighbor and cut a rug."—Jackie Loohauis, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Ehrenreich's meticulously detailed chronicle aptly demonstrates how myriad social forces, such as imperialism, capitalism, Calvinism, Christianity, modernism and various forms of religious orthodoxy, have all contributed to obliterating indigenous communal rituals of the collective gathering, and mourns the fact that modern living provides no such escape valve. . . Persuasive."—Elaine Margolin, Denver Post

"Barbara Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets is a rather unique approach to the subject of a human behavior which has roots going back to, probably, prehistoric days . . . I recommend this book to all those interested in social history and cultural studies . . . [Ehrenreich] has raised some interesting questions worth thinking about."—Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty, The Radical Academy

"A fabulous book on carnival and ecstasy, skillfully arranged and brilliantly explained."—Robert Farris Thompson, author of Tango: The Art History of Love

"Barbara Ehrenreich shows how and why people celebrate together, and equally what causes us to fear celebration. Here is the other side of ritual, whose dark side she explored in Blood Rites. She ranges in time from the earliest festivals drawn on cave walls to modern football crowds; she finds that festivities and ecstatic rituals have been a way to address personal ills like melancholy and shame, social ills as extreme as those faced by American slaves. Dancing in the Streets is itself a celebration of language—clear, funny, unpredictable. This is a truly original book."—Richard Sennett, author of The Culture of the New Capitalism

"In what may be seen as a companion piece to her Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, social commentator Ehrenreich takes a long view of the human impulse to 'seek ecstatic merger with the group,' an act that takes the form of dancing, feasting and artistic embellishment of the face and body. Going back to the prehistory of our species, she speculates about the possible value of rhythmic dance and music in holding early human groups together, in boosting a group's effectiveness against large prey. From there, she moves to what is known about ritual dancing in ancient China, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Ehrenreich compares the followers of Dionysus, whose worship involved frenzied dancing, with early Christians, who worshiped with singing, leaping and prophesying in tongues. But as early Christian communities became institutionalized, she reports, such enthusiastic behaviors were censured by ecclesiastic authorities, and by the 12th and 13th centuries, dancing was restricted to Church holidays and not permitted inside churches. Ehrenreich traces the status of traditional festivities through the 16th to 19th centuries, when they were increasingly being seen by the upper classes as wasteful of human labor. Calvin's form of Protestantism condemned all forms of festive behavior, and among Muslims, the Wahhabi movement launched reforms condemning ecstatic forms of worship such as singing and dancing. Meanwhile, colonizing Europeans, encountering exuberant rituals among native peoples around the world, categorized them as superstitious, savage and repugnant. Analyzing the mass staged spectacles of the French Revolution and those of Nazi Germany, she sees the role of people reduced to mere audience. However, in rock-'n'-roll, she finds a rebellion against that reduced role, and in recent decades she sees a convergence of rock and major league sports, with fans becoming exhibitionists and participants, dressing up, painting their faces and dancing in the stands. The capacity for collective joy, she concludes, is encoded in our genes, and to suppress it is to risk 'the solitary nightmare of depression.' A serious look at communal celebrations, well documented and presented with assurance and flair."—Kirkus Reviews

"Ehrenreich writes with grace and clarity in a fascinating, wide-ranging and generous account."Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


Invitation to the Dance

When Europeans undertook their campaigns of conquest and exploration in what seemed to them "new" worlds, they found the natives engaged in many strange and lurid activities. Cannibalism...

About the author

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, and Blood Rites, among others. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She is the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for Current Interest and ALA Notable Books for Nonfiction.

Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism. She lives and works in Florida.

Sigrid Estrada

Barbara Ehrenreich

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