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Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy    by Barbara Ehrenreich order for
Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Don't expect to zip through Dancing in the Streets the way you did one of Ehrenreich's earlier works, Nickle & Dimed. The writing is not as engaging, but on the other hand the work itself is far meatier. A lot of research went into Dancing, and the job of writing that up into the format of a chatty personal account would be extremely difficult for most researchers.

The book tells the story of community celebration, starting in Greek times - with some references to even earlier eras - and moving slowly to the present. The author is particularly concerned with the story of Dionysus, and gods similar to him, who appealed more to women or the poor, and whose worship involved participants drinking and dancing themselves into a state of ecstasy beyond reason.

Over and over, these gods and these celebrations were squelched by community leaders, for reasons having to do with fear and power. There was some reason to fear, as women under the influence of Dionysus were thought to become violent in their wine-assisted ecstasy, tearing apart live animals or people. In the middle ages, carnivals became organizational events where those advocating revolution could hide behind masks and join the crowds, leading them into mischief. Still later, festivals involved the overthrow of oppressive governments and the celebration of those revolutionary events.

Ehrenreich's quote of 19th century historian Jules Michelet describing a French Bastille Day celebration gives a good idea of what the typical joyous exuberance was like. 'The people rushed into each others arms, and joining hands, an immense farandole a kind of dance, comprising everybody, without exception, spread throughout the town, into the fields, across the mountains of Ardeche, and towards the meadows of the Rhone: the wine flowed in the streets, tables were spread, provisions placed in common, and all the people are together in the evening, solemnizing this love-feast, and praising God.' The only things lacking here were masks and costumes.

The May pole is one example of a spring celebration that was present in many early societies. In fact, a pole of any kind was significant in the religious celebrations of some pre-historical societies. Dancing around the May pole was fought by protestant reformers in the 16th and 17th century, but persisted and kept recurring until the communists took it over for their militaristic celebrations in the 20th century.

Melancholy and suicide became more common as festivals became less acceptable. Although there were resurgences of large celebrations with the advent of rock music in the 1960s and with sporting events toward the end of the 20th century, Ehrenreich believes that the increase in depression and suicide recently is connected to the lack of communal joyous rites.

Dancing in the Streets is an interesting study of collective celebrations. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on rock and roll and sporting events. The study of history in any form is important in that it helps us try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This book makes a strong argument for embracing an inherent need in people for communal celebration.

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