Controversial author Barbara Ehrenreich has long been fascinated by the darker side of human behavior and institutions. In her best-selling "Nickeled and Dimed," she joined the millions of Americans working for poverty-level wages. "Blood Rites" delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. But her newest book, "Dancing in the Streets," explores humanity's desire for collective joy, historically shown in ecstatic revels of feasting, costuming, and dancing. In this Beliefnet interview, she offers some surprising conjectures about the evolutionary role of celebrations, Christianity's origins as a "danced religion," the purpose of labyrinths, Carnival's anti-authoritarian roots, and dancing as a possible cure for depression.

What personally attracted you to look at ecstatic celebrations in our lives?

I was reading a lot about human bonding. Not of the sexual or parent/child relationship kind, but the kind of bonding that knits together communities or even can bring in strangers.

And I began to see something really riveted me--this tradition, which is just about universal in human cultures, of festivities and ecstatic rituals, always involving certain ingredients. One would be music and dance. Feasting would be the second, which could include drinking. And third, costuming, masking, face paint, body paint. You could have a procession with this. You can have drama. You can have comic episodes or performances.

What do you think people get out of these ecstatic rituals? Why do we need them?

I don't know that we need them in order to live--just as people can live without sex or romance in their lives. But when you do have an experience like that, one thing it does is makes you closer to other people. There's a community bonding effect. It's probably through these sorts of rituals and celebrations that early humans were able to form much larger groups than just kinship groups. In fact, one neuroscientist I read even called dancing the "biotechnology of group formation."

So it has an evolutionary role.

Yes,  that would be the first thing. But there are many other things that, depending on the culture, people can get out of these. One is a relief from work and poverty, because it's an interval, a moment or many moments during the year when you celebrate, when you eat good things that you might not ordinarily eat and when you put aside care.

It's also the chance for individuals to shine--you know, show talents that might not mean much in ordinary life. If you are a super dancer or if you have a great costume or you're a great musician, maybe you're just a peasant in the rest of your life, but these festivities are a time when you are a star.

What about the spiritual aspect?

These events might be interpreted in a religious way, where the point is to achieve a state of ecstatic trance--through the dance and the costuming and the bright colors and the music, which you could then interpret as communion with a deity or deities.

Emile Durkheim, the famous early 20th century sociologist, even ventured to say that all religions originated in these ecstatic rituals. That's where you have a glimpse of the transcendent. 

And, of course, you can have very exciting communal festivities and things. You could get very excited about the Super Bowl, for example, and paint your face and jump around with other people and do the wave, feast on beer and hot dogs--but nobody would expect to go into an altered state or to commune with any deities in a football stadium!

But when it is expected and part of what's culturally acceptable, as in existing ecstatic religions like Voodoo, that would be a source of actual prestige to you, that you were able to go into a trance state, which you would then come back and declare as having involved this connection with a deity or spirit.

Did early Christianity have this kind of ecstatic ritual?

Oh, yes. It was a real surprise to me to come across the evidence that Christianity might once have been a danced religion. Certainly, some of the early church leaders thought this was great and spoke of what seems to have been circle dancing, perhaps around an altar.

I was surprised to learn that there weren't even pews in Catholic churches until, I think, the 15th century or so. But in the late Middle Ages you start hearing the church fathers and the hierarchy continually complaining about the custom of dancing in churches.