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Dancing in the Streets
A History of Collective Joy
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich
All rights reserved.
The Archaic Roots of Ecstasy
Go back ten thousand years and you will find humans toiling away at the many mundane activities required for survival: hunting, food gathering, making weapons and garments, beginning to experiment with agriculture. But if you land on the right moonlit night or seasonal turning point, you might also find them engaged in what seems, by comparison, to be a gratuitous waste of energy: dancing in lines or circles, sometimes wearing masks or what appear to be costumes, often waving branches or sticks. Most likely, both sexes would be dancing, each in its separate line or circle. Their faces and bodies might be painted with red ochre, or so archaeologists guess from the widespread presence of that colored ore in the sites of human settlements. The scene, in other words, might not be too different from the "savage" rituals encountered by nineteenth-century Westerners among native peoples of the world.
We can infer these scenes from prehistoric rock art depicting dancing figures, which has been discovered at sites in Africa, India, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Egypt, among other places. Whatever else they did, our distant ancestors seemed to find plenty of time for the kinds of activities the anthropologist Victor Turner described as liminal, or peripheral to the main business of life.
Festive dancing was not a rare or incidental subject for prehistoric artists. The Israeli archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel asserts that dancing scenes "were a most popular, indeed almost the only, subject used to describe interaction between people in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods." When such danced rituals originated is not known, but there is evidence that they may go back well into the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age. At one recently discovered site in England, drawings on the ceiling of a cave show "conga lines" of female dancers, along with drawings of animals like bison and ibex, which are known to have become extinct in England ten thousand years ago. So well before people had a written language, and possibly before they took up a settled lifestyle, they danced and understood dancing as an activity important enough to record on stone.
It is not easy to read the excitement of a danced ritual into prehistoric drawings. The figures are highly stylized; many of those cataloged by Garfinkel are little more than stick figures or silhouettes; few possess facial features or anything like a facial expression. Even the identification of them as dancers takes some interpretive work; the figures have to be using their limbs in ways not associated with normal activities: holding their arms up, holding hands in a circle, raising their legs, or leaping, for example. Yet even in these crude, two-dimensional depictions, some of the recognizable ingredients of more recent festive traditions shine through — masking and costuming, for example. Some of the male figures wear masks in the form of animal heads or abstract designs; other dancers wear what archaeologists interpret as "costumes," such as leopard skins. In the clearest sign of motion, and possibly excitement, some of the figures have long, flowing hair standing out from their heads, as if they are moving rapidly and tossing their heads to some long-silenced drumbeat.
Clearly, danced rituals did not seem like a waste of energy to prehistoric peoples. They took the time to fashion masks and costumes; they wantonly expended calories in the execution of the dance; they preferred to record these scenes over any other group activity. Thus anthropologist Victor Turner's consignment of danced ritual to an occasional, marginal, or liminal status seems especially unwarranted in the prehistoric case — and more representative of the production-oriented mentality of our own industrial age than of prehistoric priorities. Surely these people knew hardship and were often threatened by food shortages, disease, and wild animals. But ritual, of a danced and possibly ecstatic nature, was central to their lives. Perhaps only because our own lives, so much easier in many ways, are also so constrained by the imperative to work, we have to wonder why.
Anthropologists tend to agree that the evolutionary function of dance was to enable — or encourage — humans to live in groups larger than small bands of closely related individuals. The advantage of larger group size is presumed to be the same as it is for those primates who still live in the wild: Larger groups are better able to defend themselves against predators. Unlike most animals — antelopes, for example — primates are capable of mounting a group defense: mobbing the intruding predator, threatening it with branches, or at least attempting to scare it off by making an infernal racket. In the case of early humans, the danger may have come not only from predatory animals like the big cats but from other now- extinct hominids or even from fellow Homo sapiens bent on raiding. And of course, in the human case, the forms of defense would have included fire, rocks, and sharpened sticks. But the first line of defense was to come together as a group.
In his justly popular book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues for an optimal Paleolithic group size of about 150. He speculates that speech — the gossip in his title — may have helped bind humans into groups of that size, much as mutual grooming — picking insects and bits of dirt out of each other's hair — appears to do in the case of other primates. But although it does not appear in his title, it is in fact dance that he invokes to hold these early human groups together. The problem with speech, according to Dunbar, is "its complete inadequacy at the emotional level":
Just as we were acquiring the ability to argue and rationalize, we needed a more primitive emotional mechanism to bond our large groups ... Something deeper and more emotional was needed to overpower the cold logic of verbal arguments. It seems that we needed music and physical touch to do that.
In fact, he sees language as subservient to danced rituals — "a way to formalize their spontaneity" and provide them with a "metaphysical or religious significance." And it should be noted that while hundreds of prehistoric images of dancing figures have been found, there are no rock drawings of stick figures apparently engaged in conversation.
Dunbar is not the only one to see group dancing — especially in lines and circles — as the great leveler and binder of human communities, uniting all who participate in the kind of communitas that Turner found in twentieth-century native rituals. Interestingly, the Greek word nomos, meaning "law," also has the musical meaning of "melody." To submit, bodily, to the music through dance is to be incorporated into the community in a way far deeper than shared myth or common custom can achieve. In synchronous movement to music or chanting voices, the petty rivalries and factional differences that might divide a group could be transmuted into harmless competition over one's prowess as a dancer, or forgotten. "Dance," as a neuroscientist put it, is "the biotechnology of group formation."
Thus groups — and the individuals within them — capable of holding themselves together through dance would have had an evolutionary advantage over more weakly bonded groups and individuals: the advantage of being better able to mount a collective defense against any animals or hostile humans who encroached on their territory or otherwise threatened them. No other species ever figured out how to do this. Birds have their signature songs; fireflies can synchronize their light displays; chimpanzees sometimes stamp around together and wave their arms in what ethologists describe as a "carnival." But if any other animals create music and move in synchrony to it, they have kept this talent well hidden from humans. We alone are gifted with the kind of love that Freud was unable to imagine: a love, or at least affinity, holding people together in groups much larger than two.
Of course dance cannot work to bind people unless (1) it is intrinsically pleasurable, and (2) it provides a kind of pleasure not achievable by smaller groups. Whatever the ritual dancers of prehistoric times thought they were doing — healing divisions in the group or preparing for the next encounter with their foes — they were also doing something that they liked to do and liked enough to invest considerable energy in. Practitioners of ecstatic danced rituals in "native" societies attested to the pleasures of their rituals; so can any modern Westerners who have participated in the dances and other rhythmic activities associated with rock concerts, raves, or the current club scene. As the historian William H. McNeill pointed out in his book Keeping Together in Time, there is a deep satisfaction — even a thrill — to the simplest synchronous group activities, like marching or chanting together. He writes of his experience as a young soldier drilling during basic training for World War II.
Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.
In fact, we tend to enjoy rhythmic music and may be so aroused by watching others dance that we have a hard time keeping ourselves from jumping in. As some Western observers of native or enslaved people's rituals observed, dancing is contagious; humans experience strong desires to synchronize their own bodies' motions with those of others. The stimuli, which can be auditory or visual or derived from an internal sense of one's own muscular response to the rhythm, can, in one psychiatrist's summary of the research, "drive cortical rhythms and eventually produce an intensely pleasurable, ineffable experience in humans."
Why should humans be rewarded so generously for moving their bodies together in time? We are also pleasurably rewarded for sexual activity, and it is easy to figure out why: Individuals who fail to engage in sex, or heterosexual intercourse anyway, leave no genetic trace. When nature requires us to do something — like eating or having sex — it kindly wires our brains to make that activity enjoyable. If synchronous rhythmic activity was, in fact, important to human collective defense, natural selection might have favored those individuals who found such activity pleasurable. In other words, evolution would have led to stronger neural connections between the motor centers that control motion, the visual centers that report on the motions of others, and the sites of pleasure in the limbic system of the brain. The joy of the rhythmic activity would have helped overcome the fear of confronting predators and other threats, just as marching music has pumped up soldiers in historical times.
We do not yet understand the neuronal basis of this pleasure, but an interesting line of speculation has opened up only recently. Humans are highly imitative creatures, more so even than monkeys and others of our primate cousins. As all parents learn, to their amazement, an infant can respond to a smile with a smile, or stick out its tongue when a parent does. How does an infant transform the visual image of a protruding tongue into the muscular actions required to make its own tongue stick out? The answer may lie in the discovery of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when an action is perceived — when the parent sticks out his tongue, for example — and when it is performed by the perceiver. In other words, the perception of an action is closely tied to the execution of the same action by the beholder. We cannot see a dancer, for example, without unconsciously starting up the neural processes that are the basis of our own participation in the dance. As the neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne writes:
Perceived behavior gives a leg up to more of the same in the observer, who becomes a participant ... The rhythm of the drum drowns out independent judgment and induces a reversion to the primordial state. To cite [Walter J.] Freeman ... "to dance is to engage in rhythmic movements that invite corresponding movements from others." Dancers synchronize, reciprocate, or alternate — all of which are forms of entrainment open to the infant. Entraining with others into a shared rhythm — marching, chanting, dancing — may trigger a primitive sense of irrational and beguiling belonging, and a shared mindset.
It is important to point out, though, that dance does not simply merge the individual into the group in the regressive way that Kinsbourne seems to imply. This is a common Western prejudice, but as I pointed out in the introduction, dancers in existing "traditional" societies often devote great effort to composing music for the dance, perfecting their dance steps or other moves, and preparing their costumes or other body decorations. They may experience self-loss in the dance, or a kind of merger with the group, but they also seek a chance to shine, as individuals, for their skills and talents. There may even have been what evolutionary biologists call sexual selection for the ability to dance well, or at least make a good appearance at the dance — just as there appears to have been sexual selection for males with deep voices and females with hourglass figures. The ability to dance or make music is not confined to a single sex, but we are often attracted to individuals who excel at these activities, and this could have given them a definite reproductive advantage.
In fact, the seasonal rituals and festivities of larger groups — several hundred people from different bands or subgroups gathering at an astronomically determined time — probably also served a reproductive function, providing an opportunity to find a mate outside of one's close circle of kin. In this endeavor, talent at music and dance might well have been an asset. At least such a possibility is suggested by a study of young, unmarried Samburu men in Kenya in recent times.
These "odd men out," suspended between boyhood and adulthood in an uncomfortably prolonged adolescence, regularly go into trance, shaking with extreme bodily agitation, in frustrating situations. Typical precipitating circumstances are those where one group of [such young men] is outdanced by a rival group in front of girls.
To be "outdanced" is to risk reproductive failure, probably for the deeper evolutionary reason that the "girls" will, at some unconscious level, judge you less capable of participating in group defense.
I cannot leave the subject of evolution, though, without throwing in my own speculation about the adaptive value of music and dance. Dunbar and others emphasize their role in keeping people together in sizable groups, but they may once have served the function of group defense in a far more direct way. Like primates in the wild today, early humans probably faced off predatory animals collectively — banding together in a tight group, stamping their feet, shouting, and waving sticks or branches. In our own time, for example, hikers are often advised to try to repel bears they encounter in the wild with the same sorts of behavior, with the arm and stick waving being recommended as a way of exaggerating the humans' height. At some point, early humans or hominids may have learned to synchronize their stampings and stick-wavings in the face of a predator, and the core of my speculation is that the predator might be tricked by this synchronous behavior into thinking that it faced — not a group of individually weak and defenseless humans — but a single, very large animal. When sticks are being brandished and feet stamped in unison, probably accompanied by synchronized chanting or shouting, it would be easy for an animal observer to conclude that only a single mind, or at least a single nervous system, is at work. Better, from the predator's point of view, to wait to catch a human alone than to tangle with what appears to be a twenty-foot-long, noisy, multilegged beast.
This form of confrontation might well have carried over into communal forms of hunting, in which game animals are driven by the human group into nets or cul de sacs or over cliffs. Many of the game animals hunted by prehistoric humans — like bison and aurochs — were themselves dangerous, and to confront them required courage. In communal hunting, the entire group — men, women, and children — advances against a herd of game animals, shouting, stamping, and waving sticks or torches. The archaeological evidence suggests that this form of hunting goes back to the Paleolithic era and possibly predates the practice of stalking individual animals by small groups of men. As in collective defense against predatory animals, synchronous movement could have augmented the human group's effectiveness — making it appear to be a single, oversized antagonist.
Excerpted from Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich. Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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