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.

You wrote something about labyrinths in medieval churches being connected to sacred dancing.

That is a conjecture of one historian I was reading. He said the labyrinths were meant to be danced through in a sacred dance--perhaps initiating new priests and nuns.

But this all gets pushed out of the Catholic churches well before the Reformation, where a number of interesting things take place. One is the dancing manias of the 14th century and later, where whole towns seem to be seized by this irrepressible desire to get out in the streets and dance. It’s been a puzzle to historians for a long time. I think you could rule out any biological causes like some toxin causing these things, which is what historians thought for a long time. It was contagious, but it was visually contagious. Bystanders to these crowds of dancers would be propelled to join in by the music and the dancing.

Why do you think dancing was driven out of the church? Who drove it out?

The hierarchy of the church, because it was thought to be disruptive, for one thing. It was thought to be lewd. That word is used again and again to describe ecstatic dance rituals of many people throughout the world, as European missionaries found them in the 17th through 19th centuries, or the church fathers viewed women dancing in churches in the late Middle Ages. They always said, "Oh God, this is gross or obscene."

Another thing--if the dancing that was going on in the churches was ecstatic, then that presents a threat to organized religion. Whenever people can access deities directly without the intervention of a religious hierarchy, they don't need to have hierarchy so much. So you have a long fight in the Catholic church to suppress what they call enthusiasm, from the Greek meaning "possessed"--having a god within you. If you can do that, what do you need the priest for?

You write that festivals are good for mental health—even preventing depression.

There's this sudden awareness of depression as a big problem in Europe in the 17th century, with doctors and clergymen saying, "What's going on? Everybody seems to be suffering from melancholy."

What they would describe by way of symptoms is very much what we would today call depression. My guess is that there certainly is a connection to the suppression of traditional festivities, which was much more marked after the Reformation because of Protestants. They were real killjoys. 

My own conjecture is that it has to do with the fact that festivities and ecstatic rituals are traditional cures for depression. You can find that in many cultures, one of the best examples being among some Islamic groups in northern Africa, where if a woman becomes very depressed and takes to her bed, someone--her family will call in a Zar, a healer--who comes with musicians and lots of other people.

There are days and nights of ecstatic dancing until the afflicted person gets up and joins, and is thereby cured or declared cured. You know, there aren't scientific studies of this. But many cultures have seen these sorts of things as a cure for what we would describe as depression.

Do you think that the celebratory aspect of religion is being revived today?

Yes, I think especially the Pentecostal churches, you know, that there's been such a growth in Pentecostalism. And it's a rejection of the much more dour and barren kind of Calvinist worship and also, the very formal Catholic forms of worship.

It's emotionally hot. It involves music. People are encouraged to move. People do enter trance states, which they interpret as being lifted up by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

Do you think that we've lost something? Can group experiences can be an antidote to malaise today?

Oh, I think so. I think it's tragic that we have this human capacity, which appears to be hardwired, or so the evolutionary biologists say, for collective joy. We have these techniques for generating it that go back thousands of years, and yet we tend not to use this.

Isn't it in a way, though, an evasion of our problems? Would you tend to not focus on solutions if you're like lost in a trance?

Well, it's possible it could work that way, too. And that's been the general opinion of a lot of anthropologists. Why didn't these people–colonized people, for example--why didn't they just focus on having a revolution against the colonizers? Why were they just doing this silly stuff?

But I think that misses the way that these kinds of activities give people strength and show them their collective strengths, which is perhaps even more important. In the Caribbean slave revolts would have a tendency to coincide with Carnival or in the late-early modern Europe Carnival would be the occasion for peasant uprisings.

In your book, you say that Carnival was a time for people to get back at those in authority.

It's interesting how universal that was. At first, I thought that was just part of European Carnival, having a King of Fools who rides backward on a donkey or having people dress up as priests and nuns and then behave in lewd ways. But that kind of thing, sending up the authorities, is universal, like it occurs to everybody: "Hey, we're getting together, we're having a good time--let's make fun of the people in charge."

What about in our culture? What do we have instead of Carnival?

What replaces ecstatic rituals and festivities in our culture is spectacles, whether that's watching something on television or going to a concert or going to watch people dance in the form of a ballet. We sit. We don't participate. We're not creative. Somebody else does it for us.

And what began to happen in the '50s with rock-'n-roll is people getting up, getting up from their seats saying, we're not going to sit still. We're going to move to this music, music which ultimately derives from the ecstatic \danced religions of West Africa.

Is Mardi Gras a good example of communal ecstasy today?

I'm more interested in the second-line festivities in New Orleans, which are much more small scale, where people will start dancing through the streets with various bands with all kinds of music and drinking along the way or eating. We still have some of these things. [But] they tend to get tainted by commercialism at some point. I think it's sad what happened to Fantasy Fest in Key West, which used to be a holiday where people really worked hard for months on their costumes, their dance steps, for when they would process down Duval Street. And then, after a while, Budweiser took it over. And it's much more now an occasion where tourists come to get really, really drunk and take off their clothes. It's like a massive Spring Break.

Could you tell us about Dionysus and the ecstatic rites in the ancient world?

I think the very existence of a god of communal ecstasy is a clue to how common ecstatic dancing was in ancient Greek society. You know, they had a god for metallurgy, a goddess for agriculture, all these deities. And they needed a specialist in communal ecstasy. And that was the god Dionysus.

He was worshiped primarily by women in ways that now seem like kind of a proto-feminist revolt. Women would just drop their domestic chores and go off into the forest, even the mountains, for days and nights of wild revelry that the god demanded as the way you worshiped him.

Now, when this hit Italy the first century before the Common Era, they [the Roman authorities] squashed it with all the ferocity they later brought against the Christians. They bloodily suppressed Dionysian worship.

And then the Christians gradually transformed him into Satan, this creature with hooves and a tail.

Yet you also note that there's some connection between Dionysus and Jesus.

I certainly wasn't expecting to find this. But there are a lot of superficial resemblances between Dionysus and Jesus. They're both itinerant. They go from place to place and preach. In the case of Jesus, perform miracles or magic, depending on what you think. And in the case of Dionysus, stirring up his particular form of worship.
Neither of them has a consort. They are both apparently asexual. They are associated with wine. Jesus can make it out of water, and Dionysus was the god of wine.

And there's that place where Jesus says, "I am the one true vine," which has been interpreted by some theologians to mean he was distinguishing himself from Dionysus. But there are ancient works of art, coins, wall paintings, things like that, that suggest that there was real overlap between the worship of Dionysus and Jesus or confusion between the two, which is very odd. All I can suggest is that the followers of Jesus wanted to associate him with this very popular Greek god.

But what the Christians had that the earlier ecstatic religions never got together was creating a community that went on between the times you met and danced and worshiped. This created kinds of solidarity and support for people that were more lasting.


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