Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich

In the past 30 years, there have been over 4500 articles on mental depression in psychology literature, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Dancing in the Streets. In that same time, there have been about 400 articles in the professional literature about joy. In her new book, the author sets out to examine the little studied subject of collective joy or community celebration.

In Dancing in the Streets, Ehrenreich presents a social history of fairs, festivals, carnivals, and other mass gatherings. She starts by examining ancient and primitive communities, presenting evidence that celebratory gatherings helped bind people together. She also contends that primitive celebrations of third world tribes were (are) not so wild and uncontrolled as judgmental first world observers have reported. Tribal celebrations are guided by strict traditions. Singers learn their parts, and dancers learn their steps. Costumes take months to create. Young people are taught by their elders approved behaviors. Tribal events that Freudian psychologists labeled as mass mental illness are seen by sociologists as reasonable group behavior.

Throughout the book Ehrenreich returns to rites celebrating Dionysus. Though there was a flowing of wine and much dancing, she says the behavior at this events has been unfairly described by many scholars as hysteria. There were rules to which celebrants adhered.

The author tells much about the development of carnivals and festivals. For many years in Christian churches, there were no pews and services involved dancing and more participation by the congregations. During medieval times as there grew more stratification of society, mocking of the clergy by lower ranking members during such services led to the expulsion of celebrations from the building. This led to secular festivals held in squares and other public areas. Church and government officials struggled to regulate these events, which did lead to rioting and revolution in some cases.

Ehrenreich includes an interesting chapter on rallies in Nazi Germany. She contends that these were not true festivals, for everything was reheared and scripted by Nazi officials. There was no real feasting by common people and certainly no joy. In contrast, the folk and rock music events of the 1960s were real festivals as attendees stood, sang with the songs, and danced in the aisles, much to the dismay of ushers and police assigned to control crowds.

When I first received the advance reader's copy of Dancing in the Streets, I thought it was a departure from the author's works, including Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. I see now that she has also written other social histories, including Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passion of War. Also, I see that throughout her works, she is concerned with the stratification of society and the abuse of the working class by the rich or powerful. In Dancing in the Streets, she contends that social elites still often oppose working class festivals.

Dancing in the Streets will be an interesting and worthy addition to many library collections.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006. Available January 2007. ISBN 0805057234

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