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Danceable history

Barbara Ehrenreich has written the story of street party politics.


[sociology] Dance fever is not a new phenomenon, according to Barbara Ehrenreich. And not something that works best on TV. The sugary thing about the dance, that which creates our collective sense of rhythm, arises only when we are participants, and not just spectators, as she writes.

In Dancing in the Streets, the author sheds bitter tears at the fact that humans have lost this contact with their rhythmic past. Spontaneous unfolding in the streets was once the glue that bound society together, she states firmly. Now, the human urge to move at a loss of sight has been corrupted by the cultural industry or cowed by tone-deaf rulers, whether they are American Christians of the moodless type or Saudi Arabian Wahabists.

dance Mania

In other words, the new book for the author behind Purchased and Underpaid and Lured and Cheated celebrates the human potential for collective eruptions in everything from ring games, via Sufi Islam and African tribal rituals to the World Cup.

However, Ehrenreich begins in the old days. Perhaps the rhythmic sensation became a defense against predators, she imagines. Then we follow the festivities through the ancient Greeks' Dionysian orgies, where the followers danced in the woods at night, and the medieval carnival. We meet ecstatic priests and the 1950s rock rebellion, the Roman Cybele sect, where the men castrated themselves, and outbreaks of dance mania in German and Italian cities in the 13th, 14th and 1500th centuries.

At the same time, the book tells the story of a protracted struggle between the desire of the people and the tendency of the elites to quell the collective physicality that workers and peasants, colonists and slaves have devoted themselves to as recreation or as a religious exercise over the centuries. It extends back to the Roman Empire and is reinforced again as the rebellion became part of the European carnival tradition of the late Middle Ages. In our day, it is the spectacular but pacifying media events that threaten the open-minded self-expression.

Barbaric and animalistic

The analysis of the rhetoric previously used in such attacks on the street parties alone makes the book worth reading. There is a striking resemblance between the militaristic Romans 'persecution of those who worshiped the wine god Bacchus, the church's ban on festivities in the Middle Ages, the colonists' view of the colonized traditions and the post – war resistance to rock. The rituals, festivals or concerts were considered barbaric and promiscuous, sinful and animalistic. They promoted homosexuality and – well, well – cannibalism.

Here, Ehrenreich undoubtedly touches on something significant, namely the Western elite's perception of the Other, as well as a very puritanical feature of the (northern) European soul life, namely the demand to resist the suck of the "jungle rhythms".


On the whole, Ehrenreich shows an impressive ability to draw such parallels. Unfortunately, several of the original hypotheses require a more convincing argument than the one she has provided. One of the most speculative chapters in Dancing in the Streets, for example, constructs a connection between the 1600th-century tightening of festivities and a melancholy epidemic that occurred at about the same time among British writers. Elsewhere, the author claims that Jesus and Dionysus were closely related. Yes, perhaps it was so that the early denominations shaped the myth of Jesus in Dionysus' image, she writes. I guess it's just maybe.

The book also becomes weaker the closer we get to our own time. That a phenomenon such as Love Parade, Berlin's annual street party with over a million participants, is first mentioned towards the end of the afterword, is symptomatic of the deficient presentation of the development after – let's say – Woodstock. This may be due to the fact that the author has hardly blown his hair out even in recent decades.

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