In her previous book Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich examined the nature and potential origins of man’s propensity for war. Now, in somewhat of a companion piece, Dancing in the Streets explores endeavors in an opposite area: the experience of collective joy. She ponders the questions, “if ecstatic rituals and festivities were once so widespread, why is so little left of them today? If the 'techniques' of ecstasy represent an important part of the human cultural heritage, why have we forgotten them, if indeed we have?”
Throughout history and different cultures, dance and celebration have been integral parts of life equal to hunting and procreating. We see it depicted in prehistoric rock art, vase paintings from archaeological sites, and the Old Testament. These traditions, though different in appearance, still continue today through religion and recreation in altered forms because people will always strive to make sense of why we are here in the universe and experiencing moments of ecstasy provides a glimpse of that which is greater than our individual selves.
However, the revelation that we are all equal in the universe throws a monkey wrench into the hierarchy of this world. If we are all one, it makes no sense for a prince to be more important than a pauper. And if anyone can tap into that which is larger than ourselves, what some people refer to as God, the hierarchy of religion becomes obsolete as well. The powers-that-be eventually realized in order to keep a grip on their power, they needed to tamp down and restrict these events.
We see a constant battle through the ages between people’s inclination to celebrate and those in charge wanting to control them. Rituals that had been filled with role reversal and mockery eventually led to the aristocracy pulling away and separating themselves. In the 12th and 13th century, Catholic leaders purged the churches of dancing, giving rise to organized revelry on saints’ days before Lent, creating Carnival. Yet, that wasn’t enough for some. Dancing needed to be stopped altogether, so Protestantism, especially the Calvinists, convinced people “that festivities were positively sinful.” Two hundred years after the Luther Reformation, Islam went through a similar attempt to purify itself as Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab reacted to the corruption he saw in Sufism.
In more modern times, collective ecstasy continues to make itself apparent on a large scale because as Ehrenreich writes, “what has been repressed, no matter how forcibly and thoroughly, often finds a way of resurfacing.” Rock and roll of the 1950s and ‘60s, particularly Elvis and The Beatles, had the ability to drive teenagers, especially young females, to hysterical frenzy. This frightened the grown-ups, causing civic leaders to “denounce rock as an indictment to juvenile delinquency, violence, and sex.” The popularity of the counterculture in the late ‘60s saw drugs, such as marijuana and LSD, and free love being used as gateways. Modern sports fans take part in a variation of carnival by dressing up in costume, painting their faces, and eating and drinking. The 20th century closed out with the rise of the rave scene, all-night dance parties where the drug of choice was MDMA, whose street name was “Ecstasy.”
The most interesting chapter in the book is straight out of a comparative religion class as Ehrenreich illustrates the rise of Jesus and Christianity and the fall of Dionysus and the similarities between the two from their origins to their works. Each was a son of a god and a human mother; they were healers and promised salvation; and wine played an important role in their stories. Marketing is everything, so while it may be considered blasphemy to some, Ehrenreich does make the case that those spreading the word of Jesus Christ might very well have taken aspects of the very popular Dionysus to help their cause and make him more appealing to help the transition
Dancing in the Streets is a great read for those with a passion for history and sociology. It distills a lot of information collected from hundreds of resources and will be a dry read to those who only know Ehrenreich from her journalistic work in Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, but for those who want to learn more about themselves and the human race, this book is an absolute joy.