Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Dancing in the Streets

I first read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy a few winters ago. There was a certain something that drew me to the book, though the details slipped away. When trying to figure out why I love Living History so much, and what drew me to the renaissance faire, I’d often circle around the bookshelf, and pick up Dancing in the Streets, but could not determine what I might have read that specifically talked about living history. When I wrote up my initial bibliography of books published on the subject of Living history, I wanted to put this book on there, but could not come up with a good reason why. Serves me right for reading a book while answering the phones at a temp job I was holding at the time. This time I listened to it on unabridged audio book.

Ehrenreich wrote Dancing in the Streets after writing a book on “the dark side of human collective excitement as expressed in human sacrifice and war.” In Dancing Ehrenreich delves into the human capability for collective effervescence, and communal ecstasy. In doing so she covers a lot of history: from Ancient Greece, through Rome, early Christianity, the European Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation and Industrial Revolution, 18th and 19th Century colonialism, the invention of the modern military, African diaspora cultures, Fascist Italy and Germany, modern spectator sports and more. More importantly for me, in talking about the history of collective joy, Ehrenreich talks about singing and dancing, about rituals, and about pageants. Folks who talk about the history of historical reenactment, about Renaissance Faires, about Living History, generally have to go back to pageants.  Ehrenreich devotes several chapters in the middle of Dancing to the Medieval European carnival as a reminder of an earlier era when Europeans of all classes engaged in spiritual dances, and collective celebrations. Carnivals and pageants are fairly closely linked in Medieval Europe as forms of celebration. I have found so little written about the history of Reenactment, that a well written account of carnival pageantry is appreciated.

As a reenactor I’m often looking for convincing historical accounts of mindset and behavior in earlier periods, and Ehrenreich’s anthropological take on an ephemeral subject like expressions of collective joy really stuck with me. Ehrenreich is quick to point out the limitations of anthropology and of psychology, and ranges over a huge amount of historical ground, but does so in a manner that is easy to follow, and fun to both read and listen to.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of western thought, anyone interested in knowing how communities have come together in the past, in learning about the thoughts behind celebrations of so many different times and places. This is a cool history book.

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