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The following is an excerpt from the book Dancing in the Streets
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Published by Metropolitan Books; January 2007; $26.00US/$32.00CAN;
Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich


Invitation to the Dance

When Europeans undertook their campaigns of conquest and exploration in what seemed to them "new" worlds, they found the natives engaged in many strange and lurid activities. Cannibalism was reported, though seldom convincingly documented, along with human sacrifice, bodily mutilation, body and face painting, and flagrantly open sexual practices. Equally jarring to European sensibilities was the almost ubiquitous practice of ecstatic ritual, in which the natives would gather to dance, sing, or chant to a state of exhaustion and, beyond that, sometimes trance. Everywhere they went -- among the hunter-gatherers of Australia, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India -- white men and occasionally women witnessed these electrifying rites so frequently that there seemed to them to be, among "the present societies of savage men . . . an extraordinary uniformity, in spite of much local variation, in ritual and mythology." The European idea of the "savage" came to focus on the image of painted and bizarrely costumed bodies, drumming and dancing with wild abandon by the light of a fire.

What did they actually see? A single ritual could look very different to different observers. When he arrived in Tahiti in the late 1700s, Captain Cook watched groups of girls performing "a very indecent dance which they call Timorodee, singing the most indecent songs and using most indecent actions . . . In doing this they keep time to a great nicety." About sixty years later, Herman Melville found the same ritual, by then called "Lory-Lory" and perhaps modified in other ways, full of sensual charm.

Presently, raising a strange chant, they softly sway themselves, gradually quickening the movement, until at length, for a few passionate moments with throbbing bosoms, and glowing cheeks, they abandon themselves to all the spirit of the dance, apparently lost to everything around. But soon subsiding again into the same languid measure as before, the eyes swimming in their heads, join in one wild chorus, and sink into each other's arms.

Like Captain Cook, Charles Darwin was repelled by the corroborree rite of western Australians, reporting that

the dancing consisted in their running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space, and stamping the ground with great force as they marched together. Their heavy footsteps were accompanied with a kind of grunt, by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms and wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and, to our ideas, without any sort of meaning.

But to the anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, a similar Aboriginal rite was far more compelling, perhaps even enticing: "The smoke, the blazing torches, the showers of sparks falling in all directions and the masses of dancing, yelling men formed a genuinely wild and savage scene of which it is impossible to convey any adequate idea in words." It was this description that fed into the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim's notion of collective effervescence: the ritually induced passion or ecstasy that cements social bonds and, he proposed, forms the ultimate basis of religion.

Through the institution of slavery, European Americans had the opportunity to observe their own captive "natives" at close range, and they too reported varying and contradictory responses to the ecstatic rituals of the transplanted Africans. Many whites of the slave-owning class saw such practices as "noisy, crude, impious, and, simply, dissolute," and took strong measures to suppress them. The nineteenth-century absentee owner of a Jamaican plantation found his slaves doing a myal dance, probably derived from an initiation rite of the Azande people of Africa, and described them as engaged in "a great variety of grotesque actions, and chanting all the while something between a song and a howl." Similarly, an English visitor to Trinidad in 1845 reported disgustedly that

on Christmas Eve, it seemed as if, under the guise of religion, all Pandemonium had been let loose . . . Drunkenness bursting forth in yells and bacchanalian orgies, was universal amongst the blacks . . . Sleep was out of the question, in the midst of such a disgusting and fiendish saturnalia . . . The musicians were attended by a multitude of drunken people of both sexes, the women being of the lowest class; and all dancing, screaming and clapping their hands, like so many demons. All this was the effect of the "midnight mass," ending, as all such masses do, in every species of depravity.

Other white observers, though, were sometimes surprised to find themselves drawn in by the peculiar power of such African-derived rituals and festivities. Traveling in the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Law Olmsted observed a black Christian service in New Orleans and was swept up by the "shouts, and groans, terrific shrieks, and indescribable expressions of ecstasy -- of pleasure or agony," to the point where he found his own face "glowing" and feet stamping, as if he had been "infected unconsciously." Clinton Furness, a traveler to South Carolina in the 1920s, reported a similar experience while watching an African American ring-shout, or danced form of religious worship.

Several men moved their feet alternately, in strange syncopation. A rhythm was born, almost without reference to the words of the preacher. It seemed to take place almost visibly, and grow. I was gripped with the feeling of a mass-intelligence, a self-conscious entity, gradually informing the crowd and taking possession of every mind there, including my own . . . I felt as if some conscious plan or purpose were carrying us along, call it mob-mind, communal composition, or what you will.

On the whole, though, white observers regarded the ecstatic rituals of darker-skinned peoples with horror and revulsion. Grotesque is one word that appears again and again in European accounts of such events; hideous is another. Henri Junod, a nineteenth-century Swiss missionary among the Ba-Ronga people of southern Mozambique, complained of the drums' "frightful din" and "infernal racket." Other Catholic missionaries, upon hearing the African drumbeat announcing a ritual event, felt it was their duty to disrupt "the hellish practice." Well into the twentieth century, the sound of drumming was enough to spook the white traveler, suggestive as it was of a world beyond human ken. "I have never heard an eerier sound," a young English visitor to South Africa reports in the 1910 novel Prester John. "Neither human nor animal it seemed, but the voice of that world between which is hid from man's sight and hearing." In the introduction to his 1926 book on tribal dancing, the writer W.D. Hambly pleaded with his readers for a little "sympathy" for his subject.

The student of primitive music and dancing will have to cultivate a habit of broad-minded consideration for the actions of backward races . . . Music and dancing performed wildly by firelight in a tropical forest have not seldom provoked the censure and disgust of European visitors, who have seen only what is grotesque or sensual.

Or, in many cases, may have elected not to see at all: When the intrepid entomologist Evelyn Cheeseman tramped through New Guinea in search of new insect species in the early 1930s, she showed not the slightest curiosity about the many native "dancing grounds" she passed through. At one village she and her bearers were asked to leave because there was to be a feast and dance that evening, which were tambu, or forbidden, for outsiders to witness. Cheeseman was miffed by this glitch in her plans but comforted herself with the thought that "it is of course well known that it is not particularly desirable to stop in a strange village when the natives are being worked up to their usual frenzy of devil worship."

Particularly disturbing to white observers was the occasional climax of ecstatic ritual, in which some or all of the participants would, after prolonged dancing and singing or chanting, enter what we might now call an "altered state of consciousness," or trance. People caught up in trance might speak in a strange voice or language, display a marked indifference to pain, contort their bodies in ways seemingly impossible in normal life, foam at the mouth, see visions, believe themselves to be possessed by a spirit or deity, and ultimately collapse.

A missionary among the Fiji Islanders described such a trance state as "a horrible sight," but it was sight that was not always possible for the traveler to avoid. In her 1963 survey of the ethnographic literature, the anthropologist Erika Bourguignon found that 92 percent of small-scale societies surveyed encouraged some sort of religious trances, in most cases through ecstatic group ritual. In one of the many accounts of trance behavior among "primitive" peoples, the early-twentieth-century German scholar T. K. Oesterreich offers this, from a white visitor to Polynesia.

As soon as the god was supposed to have entered the priest, the latter became violently agitated, and worked himself up to the highest pitch of apparent frenzy, the muscles of the limbs seemed convulsed, the body swelled, the countenance became terrific, the features distorted, the eyes wild and strained. In this state he often rolled on the earth, foaming at the mouth.

Promiscuous sex was at least comprehensible to the European mind; even human sacrifice and cannibalism have echoes in Christian rite. But as the anthropologist Michael Taussig writes, "It's the ability to become possessed . . . that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery." Trance was what many of those wild rituals seemed to lead up to, and for Europeans, it represented the very heart of darkness -- a place beyond the human self.

Or, what was worse -- a place within the human self. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's narrator observes an African ritual and reflects that 

it was unearthly, and the men were -- No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it -- this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you -- so remote from the night of first ages -- could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything.

To Europeans, there was an obvious explanation for the ecstatic practices of native peoples around the world. Since these strange behaviors could be found in "primitive" cultures almost everywhere, and since they were never indulged in by the "civilized," it followed that they must result from some fundamental defect of the "savage mind." It was less stable than the civilized mind, more childlike, "plastic," and vulnerable to irrational influence or "autosuggestion." In some instances, the savage mind was described as "out of control" and lacking the discipline and restraint that Europeans of the seventeenth century and beyond came to see as their own defining characteristics. In other accounts, the savage was perhaps too much under control -- of his or her "witch doctor," that is -- or as a victim of "mob psychology." The American political scientist Frederick Morgan Davenport even proposed an anatomical explanation for the bizarre behavior of primitives: They had only a "single spinal ganglion" to process incoming sensory signals and convert them into muscular responses, while the civilized mind had, of course, an entire brain with which to assess the incoming data and weigh the body's responses. Hence the susceptibility of the savage to the compelling music and visual imagery of his or her culture's religious rituals -- which was regrettable, since "the last thing the superstitious and impulsive negro race needs is a stirring of the emotions."

But if they thought about it, many Europeans must have realized that the group ecstasy so common among "natives" had certain parallels within Europe itself. For example, Catholic missionaries setting out from France after the 1730s would have heard about the heretical Parisian "convulsionary" cult, whose customary style of worship featured scenes as wild as anything that could be found among the "savages."

Copyright © 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich