Joining in the dance?

Recycling material but a review I wrote of  'Dancing in the Streets: A Collective History of Joy' by Barbara Ehrenreich that I have been re-reading. It is an excellent book!

You are attending a Society of Friend's meeting. Gathered in a calm silence punctuated by occasional quietly spoken testimony, one of the attendees begins to tap out a rhythm with their feet, they begin to sway, stand up, dance on the spot, speaking in words ecstatic, occasionally intelligible but mainly sounds of intense feeling. How does the meeting respond? Does it allow itself to synchronise its rhythms with the enthusiast and join in the dance? Does it shuffle uncomfortably in its seats, stretching natural tolerance to breaking point? Or does the clerk of meeting, gently lead the enthusiast out to a quiet corner and a cup of tea, fearing in them some mental imbalance? I suspect it might be the latter and yet, as their nickname of 'Quakers' demonstrate, the origins of the Society of Friends was in communal ecstasy: quaking with Spirit, enthused by the Divine Light, their bodies shook and voices shouted out the testimony of the Lord.

Barbara Ehrenreich's witty, lucid and engaged book charts this decline of communal sacred festivity within Christian space and its remergence in secular society.

She begins with colonial European observations of the importance of shared, danced ritual in indigenous, non-Western societies. These observations are overwhelming negative, full of relief that 'we, Europeans' are no longer in thrall to such activities; and, yet we were and are.

They were rooted as a contested strand in Greek culture in the celebration of the mystery cults, most notably that of Dionysus; and, never eliminated from the more strict ordering of the Roman. From these beginnings, Ehrenreich demonstrates that at the beginnings of Christianity, rituals were danced and that dance helped shape communities of healing, reconciliation and shared bonds. It was dance that was literally 'enthusiastic', 'filled with God' and led, often as not, to ecstasy including the speaking in tongues to which St. Paul alludes with customary reservation.

This penetration of Christianity of ecstatic dance was shaped, Ehrenreich argues, by Dionysus whose cult was fully established in the Jewish world that gave birth to Jesus. Jesus' life was "subtly altered and shaped by his early followers and chroniclers in order to make him more closely resemble Dionysus." This was not a conscious act of artifice but Dionysiac themes, "were ever present in the pagan/Jewish culture in which Jesus' followers sought to interpret their leader's brief life and tortured death."

Once set loose within Christianity's unfolding development, it became an important strand in Christian tradition, dancing in churches was everywhere especially at times of festival, even priests joined in; and, it had a subversive quality. In the dance, social boundaries collapsed, enhanced by people going disguised in costume and mask, roles were reversed as cross-dressing was common; and, social mores were inverted as 'divine foolishness' was celebrated and the church hierarchy mocked. This subversive quality finally led to reaction. First the hierarchy and upper classes withdrew from participation. First, they then expelled the celebrations from church and tried to co-opt them by promoting Church spectacles. Second, the hierarchy and upper classes withdrew from participation. Finally they sought to exert control, leading, at the time of Protestant Reformation, to outright suppression.

This suppression, Ehrenreich argues, was accelerated by key social and economic factors. Two she singles out for explicit treatment are the professionalisation of the military that requires people to be disciplined to a common solidarity utterly different, and in opposition to that of festivity. The second was the growing requirements of factory work brought on by industrial revolution. A medieval world permeated by holidays that were 'holy days' gives way to the ordering of the division of labour and six day weeks.

In probably the book's most fascinating chapter, Ehrenreich examines how too the Reformation brought about a new self: a conscious individual, subjectively concerned with his or her 'I'. It is an anxious self - detached and self-conscious, able to be more critically aware of existing societal arrangements but also "a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else." This anxious self was prey to melancholy, especially in its Calvinist version, permanently seeking internal evidence for its salvation, and, as Ehrenreich notes, the seventeenth century European world "was stricken by what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression." This epidemic had a common root with the social patterns that suppressed festival and if "the destruction of festivities did not actually cause depression, it may be still be that, in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potential cure for it." As Robert Burton continually noted in his famous Anatomy of Melancholy the most effective cure was in social activities that promoted a loss of 'self-consciousness' and a discovery of social joy - in other words festivity.

Now that which is repressed has a habit of returning and it has but in secular guise - in the rock concert and the sports arena - where Ehrenreich demonstrates that these 'spectacles' have been continually subverted into participatory events where the audiences own sense of common participation (and creativity around this - dancing, dressing up, inventing the 'Mexican wave') has at times out-stripped in importance the event itself, the thing being staged to be watched by the passive spectator.

And even here you can see the ongoing struggle between direct access to experience that we ourselves create out of the dance struggling with the forces of hierarchy and control that would rather supply us with 'their experience' neatly packaged and staged. Here the hierarchy retires to the corporate box, creates all seater stadiums and prices the tickets out of the hands of the unruly fans who dress up, make loud noises and behave with subversive festive gusto.

It is this underlying pattern - the source of experience and its control - that permeates her book. Do we wish to inhabit a society that invites us to experience communality through the dance, and by this experience a shared transcendence or do we wish to surrender this access, becoming spectators consuming experience laid on and controlled by others?

At no point is Ehrenreich's account of collective joy reductionist. She is interested in the phenomena of shared ritual and its social outcomes not whether or no, the dancers are actually seized by the gods or what nature those gods possess. This question she leaves respectfully unanswered. Though she does venture an evolutionary account of why shared ritual dancing had a developmental advantage to our early ancestors, she is more concerned with the values that flow from the sharing of ritual in the ongoing development of society. In a history as embracing as this, written as elegant essay rather than comprehensive accounting, there are undoubtedly missing elements most notably the fact that shared festivity and ecstasy is at the heart of modern Christianity's most rapid advance in the shape of Pentecostalism. It is not only in the secular sphere of the rock concert or the sports stadium that there is a 'return of the repressed.'

At the closing page, you are convinced that something is lost when we refuse the invitation to the dance if simply, as Ehrenreich closes, the opportunity to 'acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sought of celebration' that takes us out of constricted selves and dances awhile in the flow of a shared movement.


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