One of the hardest aspects of history to document, yet maybe one of the most important, has been festive dancing. It seems especially remote to us, since we have become progressively more isolated as individuals since the industrial revolution, so we tend to lose sight of the importance of community in our lives. However, we are a social species that has relied on numbers to survive down through the ages, which brings up the question: what has kept us together all these years. The biological root of the answer lies largely in a pleasure center in our inner ears that likes a rhythmic beat.
Throughout most of our existence as a species, we have relied on hunting and gathering for our survival. Yet this was the time when our species was especially vulnerable and had to depend on the group for survival. One survival technique against large predators was for people to move together to make it seem that the predator was up against one big animal instead of a lot of small scared animals. Very likely, rhythmic community movement had its origins here, and either was based on or led to rhythmic dancing to celebrate or anticipate a successful hunt. When people practice moving together in time for a prolonged period, it induces a trancelike & spiritual experience of all being together as one. Besides being pleasurable, it also made our ancestors more effective in hunting as well as creating cohesiveness for the whole community in day-to-day life.
When cities and civilizations evolved into societies containing many times more people than found in hunting and gathering groups, governments needed to provide the basis for identifying with and loyalty to these new states. Therefore they attempted to control collective dancing by formalizing it into state run religions monopolized by the ruling classes.
At this point, we can see a cycle that constantly has repeated itself throughout history. Once the state or a ruling clique within a religion has taken it over, they tend to tighten their control by increasingly formalizing the religious rituals. By the same token, the religion becomes increasingly boring and uninspiring to its members. Therefore, some of them start a new sect from within that religion or a new religion comes along, either of which incorporates festive dancing in its rituals, attracting large numbers of new followers. The new faith or sect grows in numbers until some of its members feel a need to impose some order by rigidly formalizing the rituals. Eventually this religion of sect becomes boring and the cycle goes on.
In Western civilization we can see this cycle repeating at least four times. The first time had to do with the wild Dionysian rites spinning off from the Greeks’ state religion of Olympian gods. Euripides’ play The Bacchae gives us a somewhat frightening scenario of what happens when the king tries to suppress these rites, and the Maenads, formerly mild mannered women who are caught up in the frenzy of the Dionysian worship, literally tear him apart. To their credit, the Greeks realized that to maintain our normal rational ways of living, we must occasionally give in to our irrational passions. Therefore, they incorporated and formalized the Dionysian rites into state festivals. One aspect of these festivals was Greek drama, such as Euripides’ play discussed above.
The cycle next repeats in the early days of the Christian Church. The Romans, being a bit more conservative than the Greeks, had severely limited the practice of the Dionysian rites. Unfortunately, they saw Christianity in the same light as the Dionysian rites, since both worshipped the son of a woman and god who had died and been resurrected, and both practiced wild, although typically asexual, rites. Therefore, St. Paul, in an effort to dissociate his religion from the Dionysian rites and make it look legitimate to the Romans, tried to control the festive dancing. As Christianity grew in popularity and a hierarchy of bishops and archbishops evolved, Church leaders continued efforts to calm down its services.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Church had gone through a major religious revival, largely from the grassroots level of the monasteries, and emerged as the most powerful institution in Western Europe by 1200. In order to gain more control over its more enthusiastic members’ practices and beliefs, it banned dancing in church. However this only pushed the dancing out into the streets where the Church had much less control and evolved into Carnival, the festival that precedes the period of Lent leading up to Easter. At first, Carnival may have had some spiritual aspects, but it soon evolved into an excuse to indulge in the various activities banned during Lent, to satisfy any desire for those activities for the next forty days leading up to Easter. Among those activities was eating meat (thus the word carnival as in carnivore) and festive dancing. Carnival also largely became of parody of the Church and ruling classes, who naturally felt somewhat threatened by it.
By the mid 1500s, Northern Europe was in the midst of another religious revival, the Protestant Reformation. At this time, Carnival was still being celebrated in the North, when it ran into two obstacles. One was the puritanical idea, especially associated with the Calvinists (AKA Puritans in America), that most any kind of pleasure was evil. At this time Europe was undergoing major shifts away from a land based to a money and credit based economy. Such shifts always leave some people behind, in this case the peasants, and generate social tensions that occasionally turn into armed rebellions. Therefore, the authorities in the North suppressed Carnival, but with some disturbing results. There is evidence by the 1600s that being deprived of communal dancing was creating a sense of isolation in people with a corresponding rise in depression.
Fast forward to the period of the French Revolution in the late 1700s. A new secular idea was sweeping across France and then Europe: nationalism, which united peoples with a common language, history, and culture into that giant collective consciousness called the nation. The revolution’s leaders the importance of communal celebrations in bringing people together and actively promoted civic festivals to unite the people behind their leadership. When Napoleon seized power in 1799, he repeated the mistake of trying to control and structure such celebrations from above with military parades that had a stirring beat, but reduced the people to being a passive audience. The idea was to replace the horizontal social bonds between the people on the same level with a top-down bond between the people and their leader who was supposed to embody the very nation itself. The result, however, was to seriously reduce the impact of such events on creating social bonds among the people.
The pattern would repeat itself again in the 1920s and 1930s in Fascist Italy and Germany with the extra twist that Mussolini and Hitler in particular had modern loudspeaker systems that allowed them to stage-manage huge spectacles with thousands of people attending. These events did use rhythmic chanting of slogans to create some communal feeling, being reinforced by another psychological phenomenon of losing one’s individual identity in such huge crowds. However, the predominantly passive role played by the masses could soon make these stage-managed rallies seem boring, giving them limited success in the long run.
After the end of World War II in 1945, accelerated urbanization, suburbanization, and the tendency to move to a new neighborhood or city every few years have created new subdivisions, but not communities, which require generations to sink the deep common roots that truly unite people. Instead, mass media, especially television, has largely replaced community events in which people are actively involved. Television watching is a fairly solitary activity where it is rare for whole families to watch the same program together. Television may provide us common cultural reference points, but it doesn’t give us community. This lack of community seriously inhibits people from participating in common activities such as festive dancing. In fact, the idea of even trying to start such events on just a neighborhood level would seem laughable, so far have we become cut off from our cultural roots and each other.