Not so long ago, we danced for hours in ecstatic rituals that joined our bodies with our souls and our souls with one another and moved us into a collective spiritual gathering. The ritual was religious and communal, sacred and profane.
To the outsider (generally, European-influenced outsiders, whose own need to dance outrageously appears to have long since been bred out of them), the rituals looked like nothing more than a big orgy. In fact, Sigmund Freud and others were convinced that the native dances observed by explorers, adventurers and anthropologists were simply savage preludes to the sex act, unsanctioned by the clergy and probably more fun than a body had a right to.
In fact, those stuffy Europeans had the same need to dance collectively. Despite a culture that worships the self - and labors under the attendant fear of losing the self in a collective activity - the need for joining together runs across cultural lines.
So writes Barbara Ehrenreich, in her latest examination of the culture, "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy." She became interested in the topic when she researched "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War," published nine years ago.
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Ehrenreich is a social historian, cultural critic and author of the acclaimed "Bait and Switch" and "Nickel and Dimed." This time, instead of examining the economic crushing of the low- to mid-level American wage earner, Ehrenreich looks to prehistory and that part of 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.
After exploring various rituals involved in ecstatic dance, Ehrenreich makes a strong case that in its absence, loneliness and even depression descend. In came "civilization" and out went ecstatic joy.
Paul of the Christian Scriptures suggests in one letter that Corinthian women keep their heads covered. Paul, writes Ehrenreich, was vastly interested in making the new religion of Christianity acceptable for the Romans. An uncovered head might mean that head was whipping around in ecstatic dance - a public display of emotion that the Romans, not the Greeks, would have shunned. Much of such enthusiastic worship was eliminated from church practice by the 12th century, but instead of disappearing entirely, it moved out on to the street in the form of carnivals. And for some religions, it didn't go very far. Witness the Christian rite of being moved by the Spirit to speak in tongues or to lay hands on the ill to heal them.
No matter our culture, we will have our ecstatic dance, writes Ehrenreich. Go to a rock concert, a rave, even a tailgate party. There, the modern anthropologist can find the remnants of the earlier rites - every bit as important and every bit as necessary. (To illustrate her point, Ehrenreich writes of a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she stood watching a line of samba dancers move down the street, joined by bystanders.
'Acknowlege the miracle'
"There was no 'point' to it - no religious overtones, ideological message, or money to be made - just the chance, which we need much more of on this crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration," she writes.
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.