Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

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9780805057249: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

"Fascinating . . . An admirably lucid, level-headed history of outbreaks of joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead."―Terry Eagleton, The Nation

Widely praised as "impressive" (The Washington Post Book World), "ambitious" (The Wall Street Journal), and "alluring" (The Los Angeles Times), Dancing in the Streets explores a human impulse that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing.

Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Barbara Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. From the earliest orgiastic Mesopotamian rites to the medieval practice of Christianity as a "danced religion" and the transgressive freedoms of carnival, she demonstrates that mass festivities have long been central to the Western tradition. In recent centuries, this festive tradition has been repressed, cruelly and often bloodily. But as Ehrenreich argues in this original, exhilarating, and ultimately optimistic book, the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction:
 
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 was reported, though seldom convincingly documented, along with human sacrifice, bodily mutilation, body and face painting, and flagrantly open sexual practices. Equally jarring to European sensibilities was the almost ubiquitous practice of ecstatic ritual, in which the natives would gather to dance, sing, or chant to a state of exhaustion and, beyond that, sometimes trance. Everywhere they went--among the hunter-gatherers of Australia, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India--white men and occasionally women witnessed these electrifying rites so frequently that there seemed to them to be, among "the present societies of savage men . . . an extraordinary uniformity, in spite of much local variation, in ritual and mythology."1 The European idea of the "savage" came to focus on the image of painted and bizarrely costumed bodies, drumming and dancing with wild abandon by the light of a fire.
 
What did they actually see? A single ritual could look very different to different observers. When he arrived in Tahiti in the late 1700s, Captain Cook watched groups of girls performing "a very indecent dance which they call Timorodee, singing the most indecent songs and using most indecent actions . . . In doing this they keep time to a great nicety."2 About sixty years later, Herman Melville found the same ritual, by then called "Lory-Lory" and perhaps modified in other ways, full of sensual charm.
 
 
Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until at length, for a few passionate moments with throbbing bosoms, and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, the eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other's arms.3
 
 
Like Captain Cook, Charles Darwin was repelled by the corroborree rite of western Australians, reporting that
 
 
the dancing consisted in their running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space, and stamping the ground with great force as they marched together. Their heavy footsteps were accompanied with a kind of grunt, by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms and wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and, to our ideas, without any sort of meaning.4
 
 
But to the anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, a similar Aboriginal rite was far more compelling, perhaps even enticing: "The smoke, the blazing torches, the showers of sparks falling in all directions and the masses of dancing, yelling men formed a genuinely wild and savage scene of which it is impossible to convey any adequate idea in words."5 It was this description that fed into the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence: the ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds and, he proposed, forms the ultimate basis of religion.
 
Through the institution of slavery, European Americans had the opportunity to observe their own captive "natives" at close range, and they too reported varying and contradictory responses to the ecstatic rituals of the transplanted Africans. Many whites of the slave-owning class saw such practices as "noisy, crude, impious, and, simply, dissolute,"6 and took strong measures to suppress them. The nineteenth-century absentee owner of a Jamaican plantation found his slaves doing a myal dance, probably derived from an initiation rite of the Azande people of Africa, and described them as engaged in "a great variety of grotesque actions, and chanting all the while something between a song and a howl."7 Similarly, an English visitor to Trinidad in 1845 reported disgustedly that
 
 
on Christmas Eve, it seemed as if, under the guise of religion, all Pandemonium had been let loose . . . Drunkenness bursting forth in yells and bacchanalian orgies, was universal amongst the blacks . . . Sleep was out of the question, in the midst of such a disgusting and fiendish saturnalia . . . The musicians were attended by a multitude of drunken people of both sexes, the women being of the lowest class; and all dancing, screaming and clapping their hands, like so many demons. All this was the effect of the "midnight mass," ending, as all such masses do, in every species of depravity.8
 
 
Other white observers, though, were sometimes surprised to find themselves drawn in by the peculiar power of such African-derived rituals and festivities. Traveling in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted observed a black Christian service in New Orleans and was swept up by the "shouts, and groans, terrific shrieks, and indescribable expressions of ecstasy--of pleasure or agony," to the point where he found his own face "glowing" and feet stamping, as if he had been "infected unconsciously."9 Clinton Furness, a traveler to South Carolina in the 1920s, reported a similar experience while watching an African American ring-shout, or danced form of religious worship.
 
 
Several men moved their feet alternately, in strange syncopation. A rhythm was born, almost without reference to the words of the preacher. It seemed to take place almost visibly, and grow. I was gripped with the feeling of a mass-intelligence, a self-conscious entity, gradually informing the crowd and taking possession of every mind there, including my own . . . I felt as if some conscious plan or purpose were carrying us along, call it mob-mind, communal composition, or what you will.10
 
 
On the whole, though, white observers regarded the ecstatic rituals of darker-skinned peoples with horror and revulsion. Grotesque is one word that appears again and again in European accounts of such events; hideous is another. Henri Junod, a nineteenth-century Swiss missionary among the Ba-Ronga people of southern Mozambique, complained of the drums' "frightful din" and "infernal racket."11 Other Catholic missionaries, upon hearing the African drumbeat announcing a ritual event, felt it was their duty to disrupt "the hellish practice."12 Well into the twentieth century, the sound of drumming was enough to spook the white traveler, suggestive as it was of a world beyond human ken. "I have never heard an eerier sound," a young English visitor to South Africa reports in the 1910 novel Prester John. "Neither human nor animal it seemed, but the voice of that world between which is hid from man's sight and hearing."13 In the introduction to his 1926 book on tribal dancing, the writer W. D. Hambly pleaded with his readers for a little "sympathy" for his subject.
 
 
The student of primitive music and dancing will have to cultivate a habit of broad-minded consideration for the actions of backward races . . . Music and dancing performed wildly by firelight in a tropical forest have not seldom provoked the censure and disgust of European visitors, who have seen only what is grotesque or sensual.14
 
 
Or, in many cases, may have elected not to see at all: When the intrepid entomologist Evelyn Cheeseman tramped through New Guinea in search of new insect species in the early 1930s, she showed not the slightest curiosity about the many native "dancing grounds" she passed through. At one village she and her bearers were asked to leave because there was to be a feast and dance that evening, which were tambu, or forbidden, for outsiders to witness. Cheeseman was miffed by this glitch in her plans but comforted herself with the thought that "it is of course well known that it is not particularly desirable to stop in a strange village when the natives are being worked up to their usual frenzy of devil worship."15
 
Particularly disturbing to white observers was the occasional climax of ecstatic ritual, in which some or all of the participants would, after prolonged dancing and singing or chanting, enter what we might now call an "altered state of consciousness," or trance. People caught up in trance might speak in a strange voice or language, display a marked indifference to pain, contort their bodies in ways seemingly impossible in normal life, foam at the mouth, see visions, believe themselves to be possessed by a spirit or deity, and ultimately collapse.*
 
A missionary among the Fiji Islanders described such a trance state as "a horrible sight,"16 but it was sight that was not always possible for the traveler to avoid. In her 1963 survey of the ethnographic literature, the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that 92 percent of small-scale societies surveyed encouraged some sort of religious trances, in most cases through ecstatic group ritual.17 In one of the many accounts of trance behavior among "primitive" peoples, the early-twentieth-century German scholar T. K. Oesterreich offers this, from a white visitor to Polynesia.
 
 
As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest, the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, the eyes wild and strained. In this state he often rolled on the earth, foaming at the mouth.18
 
 
Promiscuous sex was at least comprehensible to the European mind; even human sacrifice and cannibalism have echoes in Christian rite. But as the anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, "It's the ability to become possessed . . . that signifies to Europe...

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Descripción Henry Holt Company, United States, 2007. Paperback. Estado de conservación: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Fascinating . . . An admirably lucid, level-headed history of outbreaks of joy from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead. --Terry Eagleton, The Nation Widely praised as impressive (The Washington Post Book World), ambitious (The Wall Street Journal), and alluring (The Los Angeles Times), Dancing in the Streets explores a human impulse that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a term for it: the desire for collective joy, historically expressed in revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing. Drawing on a wealth of history and anthropology, Barbara Ehrenreich uncovers the origins of communal celebration in human biology and culture. From the earliest orgiastic Mesopotamian rites to the medieval practice of Christianity as a danced religion and the transgressive freedoms of carnival, she demonstrates that mass festivities have long been central to the Western tradition. In recent centuries, this festive tradition has been repressed, cruelly and often bloodily. But as Ehrenreich argues in this original, exhilarating, and ultimately optimistic book, the celebratory impulse is too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be completely extinguished. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780805057249

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