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Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  903 ratings  ·  168 reviews
From the bestselling social commentator and cultural historian, a fascinating exploration of one of humanity's oldest traditions: the celebration of communal joy
In the acclaimed "Blood Rites," Barbara Ehrenreich delved into the origins of our species' attraction to war. Here, she explores the opposite impulse, one that has been so effectively suppressed that we lack even a
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 9th 2007 by Metropolitan Books (first published January 1st 2006)
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Apr 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Four out of five stars for the idea, two out of five stars for execution. Ehrenreich's introduction to Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy points out a quizzical disconnect in modern Western culture. We put an awful lot of time and effort into studying depression, malaise, the things that make us happy and the things that isolate us, but very little effort into studying the things that make us happy or which bring us together. Ehrenreich traces the history of expressions of commu ...more
Clara Stefanov-wagner
I was disappointed to find that "collective joy" was narrowly defined in a very specific sense of trancelike, community-wide ritual associated with religious festivities. This is further defined (or at least described) as being characterized by a loss of individual consciousness and orientation on a level that would be considered pathological in other contexts. Working from this restrictive definition, the author takes the view that such occasions have vanished, and that we have lost an essentia ...more
Pinko Palest
Mar 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
the basic premise of the book is excellent: carnival is subversive and collective joy teaches people how to overthrow hierarchies. Sadly, the author doesn't deal with this main point nearly enough. Instead, she goes on several tangents which not only add little but can be widely off the mark too. At the very beginning she makes a case for collective dancing being hard-wired in human genes, which is as biologically deterministic as they come. By the end, she makes a case for the carnivalization o ...more
Larry Bassett
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction, history
Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my hero authors because of her books Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. She has written a number of other books but these two address social issues that I find particularly compelling. They are also books where her writing is quite personal and succinct. On the other hand Dancing in the Streets hammers home its points by excessive repetition. For example, in the Introduction Ehrenreich writes a twenty page thesis on ceremonies that she considers celebratory in som ...more
Richard Reese
Oct 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was intrigued when our book group selected Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a history of collective joy and ecstatic ritual — stuff that’s pretty rare in the land of the glowing screen people. Studying humankind’s long transition from wild and free to robo-consumers, it’s easy to perceive gradually advancing emotional decay. Cultures slid further away from intimate connections to the family of life, and human societies grew from small clans of friends and family into sprawlin ...more
Feb 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
I chose not to finish this book; being a fan of both joy and dance, this made me sad. As an investigative reporter, Ehrenreich might be quite skilled. But I am not impressed with her grasp of religious history nor her style of psychological conjecture to support her points. There are better sources than this book for cultural theories. If I'm going to spend time on the history of an event, I want more hard facts.
Feb 20, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Three and a half stars.

This is not a topic about which I would have deliberately sought out information, but Ehrenreich is one of those authors who can lead me willingly into uncharted waters.

The joy of which the subtitle speaks is the ecstatic variety, most familiar to modern Western readers as a relic of a bygone age, in which there might be speaking in tongues, dancing to the point of exhaustion, and other expressions in which the individual seems to lose him or herself to some greater collec
Dale Rosenberg
Jun 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This history and exposition of ecstatic rituals and festivity by Barbara Ehrenreich is fascinating, disturbing, and ultimately uplifting. Ehrenreich posits that we as humans are hard-wired to experience collective joy, to use human community for positive rituals and activities that connect us with one another and with the divine, however we understand that. Full of examples, Ehrenreich starts with ancient civilizations and their rites and moves forward through medieval festivals to the repressio ...more
Sami Eerola
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2018
Great history book that not just tells the history of street dancing, but also the history of Western culture, imperialism and capitalism. This book starts as a regular anthropological study, but after 100 pages it turns in a quasi anarchist "peoples history" book, that argues that to create a centralized state and capitalism the cracking down of street dancing and collective spontaneity was "necessary". In the end this book argues that all the mental illnesses and depression that people suffer ...more
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Ehrenreich leads the reader through ecstatic rituals' persistent effervescence in spite of authoritarian campaigns against collective joy, and the solidarity it can inspire.

As a white American, I have always felt an important part of myself locked down, and tied up. Ehrenreich identifies it as a practice of social movement that's been stripped from me over long generations of Orwellian memory-holes.
Jeremy Preacher
Jun 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: sociology
I liked this and found it an interesting read. Ehrenreich presented some historical events in an unusual light - the rise of Protestantism as a reaction against the increasing disapproval by the Catholic Church of public celebration being the main example. I was also fascinated by the idea, provocative although not well-supported, that the early Christians were shaped by Dionysian cults, because the Roman Jews were also followers of Dionysus. I'd love to see some more evidence along those lines ...more
Jessi Vowels
Jun 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: people who are too cool to dance
i liked the concept, i agreed with many of her argumentsbut could not deal with it's half-assed research and academic posturing. there were all kinds of research problems, logical fallacies, and an almost gratuitous use of the word "masking", but my one major bugaboo, which completely drove me up a wall through the entire book was her frequently bashing of anthropologists for using words she felt were derogatory, without actually bothering to *understand the definitions of the words*.

Aug 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: science-history
This was more of a history of the *suppression* of collective joy rather than the rituals of joy themselves. None the less, full of fascinating information, including the fact that before Yahweh became the one god of the Jews, they worshiped the middle eastern version of Dionysus. The author also comes to some interesting conclusions about how our culture went from first hand experience of divinity through ecstatic ritual, to "faith", which, if you look at it honestly is an act of the imaginatio ...more
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
The topic -- group dance, ecstatic joy experienced in groups, and trance states -- seems under explored and appreciated. I expect and hope that Dancing in the Street will be more interesting than the blockbuster, Nickel and Dimed.

Notes while reading:

A big challenge in this text will be exploring a topic that will trample on some of her audience's sensitivities without actually trampling on too many of her audience's sensitivities.

So far as I can tell, the ways that this phenomenon maybe does sur
Sep 21, 2009 rated it liked it
Collective Joy! Lets get there, but not in a scary LSD way. Just go dance about with your neighbors.

I wish the author focused more on the history of this in other areas of the world than northern europe.

It is amazing, and a bit frightening to think about the boundaries...where does collective joy become a riot? Interesting book
Dec 09, 2010 rated it really liked it
This is not Barbara Ehrenreich's best writing - it lacks the elan of her first-person narrative style - but she really impressed me with her argument that humans need festival. It turns out my interests in dancing and community are closely related, which finally makes sense to me. Bottom line: more dance parties. Can't argue with that.
Feb 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
I loved the discussion of the physical component of Spiritual expression. I have personally struggled to find opportunities to share this "collective effervescence" that are not frustrated by weird dogma. Maybe that is why I have found so much satisfaction in singing in a choir and in practicing yoga. They are both physical/spiritual expressions w/o unnecessary conflicts of dogma.
Aug 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
I'm delighted to finally read a book that describes dancing and social exuberance in a positive light! While this book is not perfect (in its research, in its coverage and perception of non-western dance forms), it's the first and only of its kind.
May 11, 2011 rated it liked it
This was less about collective joy than the repression of collective joy, and heavily focused on the Christian tradition, although not exclusively so. An interesting book, and a good resource for a writing wanting to get ideas for a repressive government.
Jun 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is extremely interesting and dense, so don't expect a light tone based on that title. It focuses mostly on group ritual and festival, but goes over an interesting history of how we celebrated and how different institutions have encouraged or limited those things.
Emma Warren
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is the most fabulous book. It's rich, enlightening, readable and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand why we as a species continue to gather to dance.
Apr 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Barbara Ehrenreich is an engaging, enlightened and incisive critic of western culture, particularly in the company of writers on the New York Times Best Sellers List. Her best known book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America provided a significant swath of middle-class Americans with a personally experienced account of just how hard it is to get by on a variety of minimum wage jobs in this country, for example. When I read about Barbara's most recent book, "Dancing in the Streets," s ...more
Andrew Chandler
Mar 13, 2017 rated it did not like it
Very disappointed in this book. I have learned a lot about the value of music and dance on society from my wife, who has a degree in music and is a music teacher. I expected this book to be an extension of what she had taught me in passing: The role of group music and dance (or collective joy as Ehrenreich calls it) in other cultures, the benefits it has to society, and the history of music and dance in the US. But as I questioned my wife about conclusions of the book, on multiple occasions she ...more
Jan 29, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is the type of the books that start from an idea and then set off to find stuff to fit the idea. The idea here is: we human beings seem to think about (at least in terms of the number of studies) negative emotions much more than positive ones. By examining the history, could it possible to know why, or even better, to find some remedies?

The idea itself is interesting, but not well executed. The author seems to already have her arguments pre-determined. Basically it's like this: "Group festi
Jan 26, 2013 rated it liked it

A lament for the disappearance of communal celebrations, this work is an analysis of the role that 'festivals' have played in uniting people, in creating community. The author believes it has been significant - indeed, believes it is one of the major reasons for human success. Believes that the ability to form groups larger than a nuclear family was essential for human survival - essential for gathering food, hunting, fending off predators. And believes that the means of binding together people,
Jan 16, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I hit 60% or so of the book and quit.

First of all, for a book on joy, this is surprisingly dull. List on list of this or that or dry recounting of events. There's little verve.

In part, this is because the title is misleading: It led me to expect a history of celebration, a look at how people have been joyful through the years. Instead, it is primarily focused on a particular sort of "joy"--group dances that lead to a trancelike state wherein the dancer loses a sense of individuality. I'm not sur
Thom Kaife
Jul 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology
A wonderful concept and thoroughly researched work by one of my favourite authors. I felt like the point or focus was lost in some parts and it felt more like a collage of different, albeit interesting and informing further reading, ideas that didn’t necessarily gel for me. Three stars for keeping me engaged and interested but the overall point, or argument, on how the different ideas constitute a clear history of ‘collective joy’, was somewhat lost on me. I found this book originally through Ly ...more
Holli Arnold
Nov 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Ehrenreich gives a rich history of collective dancing. She portrays it as the underdog to industrialization, exploitation, organized religion, social hierarchy and general inequality. I don’t fully buy into her romanticizing “primitive” cultures and demonizing modern Western civilization…but it does have a nugget of truth to it.

“People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state and corporate power, solidarity in their sole so
Sara Gray
Oct 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I've read several of Ehrenreich's works, and this one is by far my favorite next to Living with a Wild God. She connects so many historical dots--such as the rise of firearms during the Renaissance and the dying custom of lower classed, highly participatory street festivals--so very brilliantly and clearly. She touches on the age old division between Apollonian and Dionysian forms of expression and control in a new and fascinating way. For anyone who wants to know the deep history behind their f ...more
Feb 05, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this book with the expectation that it would be about joy. It's not. Author Barbara Ehrenreich extensively discusses Dionises, Carnival and dancing. But joy is mentioned only a handful of times, and most of the content is not about joy but about community gatherings and celebrations.
I did appreciate learning more about how Calvanism impacted European and American views of dancing. Overall, though, the author speaks negatively about Christianity and God.
The audiobook narrator does a g
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Barbara Ehrenreich is an American journalist and the bestselling author of sixteen previous books, including the bestsellers Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. A frequent contributor to Harpers and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time Magazine.

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