Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dancing In The Street: A History of Collective Joy, by Barbara Ehrenreich


I’ve read two other books by Barbara Ehrenreich (jeez that surname is hard to spell!), her journalistic books Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed, in which she explored the lives of working and middle class people. I loved these two books, with their razor sharp writing and sassy wit.

Little did I know that Ehrenreich also wrote on such subjects as the history of dances, feasts and carnivals, which is what Dancing In The Street: A History of Collective Joy is about.

We start with Dionysus and Bacchus, then travel through to medieval feasts and carnivals, and end up in our own day with staged rock concerts and sports events. While Ehrenreich chronicles these dances and feasts, she also describes how their enemies tried to suppress them.

Militarism and colonialism were at odds with collective displays of ecstasy through music, drumming and masking. When the conquering English came face-to-face with the native dances and rituals of those they subjugated, their fear and loathing of the local customs seems quite hysterical. Most notably many civilised Europeans loathed the sound of the drums, and the ecstatic abandon it created.

Even in our own modern day, the advent of rock and roll caused all manner of over reaction amongst authorities. At early rock concerts police were required to stop people dancing in the aisles. Christian fears of what dance and drumming would unleash caused this most extraordinary repressiveness.

What I found most interesting about this book was Ehrenreich’s discussion of the rise of European depression after the year 1600. The author makes the link between this and the decline of the medieval carnival tradition. People no longer had the outlet for self-expression. It’s a very tempting hypothesis, for this reader anyway.

I recall years ago seeing a documentary about music and how Africans used music to heal people. The singer Chaka Khan talks about this in her autobiography Through The Fire. I’m tempted to think that a good therapy for depression would be some sort of mass music and dance class.

This was a really enjoyable, well organised history that made many convincing arguments. You walk away in a cheerful mood and full of optimism. I wonder if there are many other histories of dance? Ehrenreich convinced me of its importance as a topic.

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