Dancing In the Streets: A History of Collective Joy
Throughout history, mankind has participated in a variety of rituals and celebrations. Some are somber and fairly simple (a wake, a funeral procession), while others are quite festive and elaborate (Mardi Gras in New Orleans, carnaval in Brazil).
DANCING IN THE STREETS, by prolific author and historian Barbara Ehrenreich, explains in great detail how and why human beings have come together to mark special occasions, the process by which these rituals have been passed down through the centuries, and what the events mean to participants.
Many of the rituals were planned and/or timed to celebrate a particular happening, such as a wedding, the bounty of the harvest, a funeral, or the rite of passage into adulthood. They often included many of the following components: a certain type of costume or dress, special foods and beverages, music and dancing, masks, body painting, headgear, etc. Certainly these celebrations frequently centered on a procession, a parade or athletic contests.
One only need to think about current-day Olympic games to realize just how much of the pageantry, ritual and symbolism has remained and been expanded upon. The special costumes (all team members of an individual nation are dressed alike), the opening ceremony (which includes the Parade of the Nations and proud flag waving), the lighting of the Olympic torch (which officially begins the competition) and music (the playing of the various national anthems at the medals ceremonies) tend to draw the observer in, making him or her feel like an integral part of the activities. When watching the Olympics on television, one is briefly transported to another time and place, where the similarities and successes (not the differences) of various cultures are being celebrated.
Cave drawings depicted dancing, masks and costumes. Dance was a common theme of ancient Greek art. French Revolutionary festivals included military parades, uplifting marches and officers in splendid uniforms. Explorers and missionaries who observed strange rituals (involving dance, fire, music and costumes) performed by darker skinned individuals were startled, puzzled and upset by what they saw. Even Darwin could not understand the stomping/dancing in unison by western Australian men as they beat their clubs and spears together. The drumming, the chanting and the music drew the observer in and encouraged him to participate and become part of the group.
Even today, at ballparks across the nation, fans are costumed in jerseys, caps and tee shirts emblazoned with their favorite team's logo. Some paint their faces or bare chests the colors of their team. One person moves a certain way, and soon thousands in the stadium are doing "the wave." And music? It might be a cheesy-sounding organ blaring "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that causes spectators to stand, sway and sing along. Or a lively video is projected onto a huge screen, and soon fans are screaming "We Are Family." For a brief period of time they are part of a friendly crowd --- folks with whom they share a common bond, however briefly. When doing "the wave" or cheering on their team, they aren't strangers.
Barbara Ehrenreich laments the fact that we are very lonely people who lead separate and individual lives. Even though we may have strong family ties and/or find comfort and strength in religion, Ehrenreich firmly believes that we need to create more opportunities for people to experience and express collective joy.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 8, 2007