April 09, 2009

Books: Dancing In The Streets ~ A History of Collective Joy - Barbara Ehrenreich

When you hear a certain type of music, you may find it difficult to resist the urge to tap you foot, nod along in time to the beat or generally move your body in some way. Reviewers often resort to using adjectives such as 'catchy', 'infectious', 'insistent' and 'unrelenting' to describe beats, tunes or music in general, again suggesting some inner urge to react in some way. Of course in the majority of situations where we can hear music these days it is inappropriate to give in to the urge to dance, no matter how strong that desire may be. You might be really into the sounds coming from your iPod, but breaking into dance on the commuter train is (at best) simply likely to draw stares from bewildered onlookers.
This is one of the points that Barbara Ehrenreich alludes to in her hugely enjoyable book Dancing In The Streets. The basic premise of her book is that human beings have some inner urge to get together and dance, creating some kind of collective feeling of euphoria or ecstasy, but that over time people have been doing so less and less. She looks at different points of human history to illustrate her ideas starting in ancient times with the worship of Dionysus going up to modern day rock concerts and crowds in sports stadiums. Throughout the book we are offered examples of the conflict between people's desire to celebrate collectively and society's desire to impose order on its citizens, with the latter more often than not winning in some way or another.

So why don't we dance as much as we used to? Well, Ehrenreich puts forwards a number of ideas such as the restrictions of Protestantism, the age of the gun and the emergence of capitalism as contributing to the move away from dance over the centuries. She also suggests that despite all of this, the inner urge still exists, hence the rock revolution of the sixties.

The book as a whole tackles a huge subject and the author chooses to select examples that back up her central ideas quite nicely, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable to read. As Ehrenreich herself acknowledges, most of the examples used are from Western history, yet I think it would be interesting as an aside to discuss with the author what she makes of similar traditions in Asia. Japan, for example, is often cited as an example of a very ordered society, yet at the same time it has a long history of collective celebration in its many festivals many of which are still celebrated today.

A wonderful book that makes you feel good and dares you to dance a bit more.

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