Hard-Wired to Party

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Revelers celebrate New Year's Eve on the Champs Elysees in Paris, France.

Dancing! Feasting! Costuming! Masking! Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the bestselling Nickled and Dimed, turns her keen eye on the topic of group exuberance, in her forthcoming book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (Holt; January 10). Ehrenreich argues that Mardi Gras-type behavior is vital to human behavior, and that Americans just don't do it enough, even on Christmas and New Year's. TIME's Andrea Sachs spoke (exuberantly) with Ehrenreich:

TIME: What purpose does collective exuberance serve?

Ehrenreich: (Laughs) Well, there's a very Protestant ethics type of question. What anthropologists would answer that question by saying is that it's a way of bonding communities, it's a way of building bonds among people who are not necessarily related. That's a very important human ability, to go beyond the family, and create reasonably tight-knit communities. They can be pretty large, hundreds of thousands of people.

Does this occur in the religious context?

Well into the Middle Ages, Christianity seems to have been a very festive kind of religion. The people danced in the churches. We know of the constant efforts of the church fathers to crack down on it. Religion has often been associated with some kind of collective celebration, where people get very excited or perhaps even enter into trances and feel as though they have made contact with the deities that way. But the distinction between what's religious and what's recreational is a pretty fine line to draw. If you look at a contemporary storefront Pentacostalist Sunday morning's worship, you'll find people dancing, you'll find a lot of music, and you'll find a some ingredients of traditional kinds of festivities.

What about in the sports context?

Yes, this really fascinated me. I really got interested in it just by watching sports fans walk by my rented apartment in Berkeley. I was teaching there for a semester. I was watching the football fans go by on Sundays, and I couldn't help but notice that they were costumed — red for Stanford — and there were painted faces and so on. What I argue in the book is people have managed to carnivalize sports events, to turn them into occasions for feasting, costuming, masking and dancing. They literally dance in Latin American soccer stadiums, but in North America, they are more likely doing the Wave or some other kind of rhythmic activity that everyone participates in.

Do rock concerts qualify?

You get these revivals, one in the form of the so-called rock rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s, when rock and roll was seen as a very subversive force, and was constantly denounced by legal and religious authorities as some kind of crazed mania that was sweeping the young. But the young people were creating something that looked like a very ancient form of festivity. They were dressing in certain ways, and getting up and dancing, and maybe later in the 60s, adding in mind-altering substances.

Why have the authorities often tried to crack down on these collective events?

The traditional answer by some of the best-known historians would be that once you run into the industrial revolution, authorities have no patience with people not working. They felt they had to instill work discipline into the population. So, for example, by the 18th or 19th century, more and more festivities in northern Europe, especially, had been banned. You were just supposed to work six days a week, and then sit silently or in church. The other reason, which I argue, is that in fact, these kind of festivities often became dangerous from the point of view of elites in society. You can see that in the European Carnival tradition, which was beginning by the 16th century to spill over into riots or uprisings even against the powers that be. Or the slave rebellions of the Caribbean in the 19th century, which suspiciously oftentimes coincided with Carnival. The people were using these occasions to express protest or rebellion.

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