Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy is a book authored by Barbara Ehrenreich. Contents. 1 Description; 2 Well-known examples of Collective Joy. In her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the history of group festivities and the emotions these. Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich The Face of Battle by John Keegan The.

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Dancing in the Streets: For at least 10, years the human race has, at regular and officially sanctioned intervals, abandoned the hard diurnal grind of work and taken to the streets. Accompanied by drums and pipes, in masks and costumes, people, often hand in hand and usually in circles, sang and danced, faster and faster, until a climactic state of shared bliss was attained.

Then, much invigorated, they returned to work and everyday life. This habit persisted until around the 13th and 14th centuries; it was finally stamped out, in eancing west, by the 17th. Why this should have happened, and what the consequences have been, are the matter of Barbara Ehrenreich’s witty and quizzical new book, a follow-up to her devastating study of war, Blood Rites.

It is, by contrast with that dark book, essentially an affirmation of the ability of human beings to streefs themselves – if, that is, they are allowed to.

No one quite knows how those first recorded festive processions, so vividly recorded on pottery and in cave drawings, came about, though it has been plausibly surmised that they may have ij designed to scare marauding animals.

But this defensive activity quickly proved to have a striking side-effect: The ecstatic dqncing engendered was perceived by its participants as a direct experience of god, unmediated by priests or interpreters.

Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich | Quarterly Conversation

The revellers’ gods – Dionysos, Krishna and Pau – especially attracted women and working people to them; their joyful rituals were essentially demotic, and inevitably drew down on themselves the disapproval of the clerical and civic establishment.

Priests and monarchs have ever been the foes of genuine popular celebrations. Ehrenreich chronicles danicng early church’s systematic attempts to remove strreets Dionysian elements from their services – dancing, singing, speaking in tongues, the tossing of freely flowing hair.


Free expression was discouraged; pews were installed to compel worshippers to control themselves, and their possessed brethren were duly evicted on to the streets. Dance manias erupted at various points in the 13th and 14th centuries and dance itself was deemed the devil’s work.

The church dissociated itself from its own former joyous demeanour, offering instead ritual, solemnity, high aesthetics.

Ehrenreich traces the sudden explosion of carnivals and popular festivals in the 15th century to the suppression in the churches of the more exuberant forms of worship, and makes a very striking point: Not, however, without point. It became the great creative outlet of the people. Both carnival and the Feast of Fools, in which social roles were reversed and wild behaviour briefly allowed free rein, had initially been endorsed by church ehrenrecih state as being useful safety valves; the endorsement was soon enough rescinded, but not before the people had taken over.

Great festivities were planned, dreamed of, reminisced about: Carnival, in Goethe’s words, was streets festival that is not really given to the people, but one that the people give themselves”.

Dance with the devil

That sort of sttreets was intolerable. The church moved decisively, confining festivities to Sundays, whereupon, “in a classic catch”, as Ehrenreich says, it prohibited all recreations and sports on the Sabbath.

Capitalism and its handmaiden, Puritanism, were on the rise.

Max Weber famously analysed the need of the former for a strong, disciplined workforce; to this Ehrenreich strikingly adds the adoption of guns by the military as a further constraint on the proletarian population from which the armed forces were of course drawn. To make effective use of their new weapons they needed to be relentlessly drilled. The traditional compensations of military and naval life – alcohol, women, carousing, brawling – were now proscribed, not only in Europe but also in China and, somewhat later, under the Wahhabist influence, in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, in the west, the sense of society as a single body was decaying with the rise of that new entity, the self, and its attendant anxieties about the opinions of others and fears of loss of individual identity. Melancholy, or more baldly, depression, Ehrenreich notes, grew fourfold, at least partly as the result of the abandonment of collective festivities with their “mind-preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy”.


Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich

Christian missionaries wrought dajcing among conquered peoples by depriving them of long-established customs that effectively maintained psychic and social balance within the group; tribal song and dance were ruthlessly repressed. The very phrase used by the South African Streest tribe for “one who converts to Christianity” was “one who has given up dancing”. In the west in the 19th and early 20th centuries, festivities had been replaced by spectacles, whether concerts at which the audience sat mute and motionless, or huge organised events such as the rallies of Hitler and Mussolini at which the spectators, scarcely less well-drilled than the marching soldiers they beheld, were reduced to utter passivity.

Later in the century, football and, especially, in Ehrenreich’s view, rock, represented the revolt of the audience, a reclamation of creative participation and life-enhancing abandonment to rhythm and flow.

But, she somewhat gloomily reports, crafty old capitalism has reclaimed both of these, leaving only the illusion of ecstatic release.

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy – Barbara Ehrenreich – Google Books

Neither Ehrenreich’s tone nor her method is academic. She covers her vast terrain comprehensively yet incisively, casting her net sometimes perhaps a little too wide but often landing delicious detail at the same time as more strictly germane matter. She reports, for example, the hilarious attempts of the American Life Application Study Bible to subvert Christ’s manifest socialism: Dancing in the Streets suggests that with the disappearance of carnival we have lost a crucial part of the human experience, though she is understandably unable to propose what form the healing collective joy she so vividly describes might take in our 21st century dystopia.

Hello Americans is published by Jonathan Cape.