Collective Effervescence: The Lost Tradition of Ecstatic Dance

By Dom Nozzi

I just finished reading an extraordinary book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Haidt, 2012).

The author of this important book unveils the lost cultural tradition that so many societies practiced for centuries, yet has faded in recent centuries. “…in the late 15th Century…European travelers to every continent witnessed people coming together to dance with wild abandon around a fire, synchronized to the beat of drums, often to the point of exhaustion.”

While such collective behavior was essential to the health and bond strengthening of a community, the suppression of such joyful communal activity led Europeans to not only fail to recall their own traditions in this
imagesrealm, but to look upon its continuation in other cultures as an abomination. “In Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich describes how European explorers reacted to these dances: with disgust. The masks, body paints, and guttural shrieks made the dancers seem like animals. The rhythmically undulating bodies and occasional sexual pantomimes were, to most Europeans, degrading, grotesque, and thoroughly ‘savage.’”

Haidt points out that “[t]he Europeans were unprepared for what they were seeing. As Ehrenreich argues, collective and ecstatic dancing is a nearly universal ‘biotechnology’ for binding groups together…It fosters love, trust, and equality.”

Why had such a beneficial tradition been lost to Europeans? Haidt finds the explanation to be based on Christianity and the emergence of the drive for individual achievement in the Middle Ages, as noted by Ehrenreich. “It was common in ancient Greece…and in early Christianity (which she says was a ‘danced’ religion until dancing in church was suppressed in the Middle Ages)…But if ecstatic dancing is so beneficial and widespread, then why did Europeans give it up?…[Ehrenreich argues that it was due to] the rise of individualism and more refined notions of self in Europe, beginning in the sixteenth century…”

Haidt’s book describes the meaning and lost value of “collective effervescence.” “…[The scholar Emile Durkheim referred to activities such as ecstatic dancing as] higher-level sentiments [he called] ‘collective effervescence,’ which describes the passion and ecstasy that group rituals can generate. As Durkheim put it: ‘The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation.’”

In the spring of 1986, I attended a “rave” dance at a downtown Gainesville, Florida nightclub that gave me an unforgettable taste of collective effervescence. That night, the dance floor throbbed to the beat of high-energy, high-volume disco music, and the effervescence of a packed, feverish group of happy, exhilarated college-age dancers who danced synchronistically in a trance, as if we were one organism,disco990-saidaonline to the music and the strobing colored lights. I felt as if time had ended. As if there was no shame. No paralyzing and fun-destroying self-consciousness. Or right or wrong. All that existed was that very moment of joy, shared euphorically with others at the nightclub at 3 a.m.

It was one of the most pleasant, enjoyable, unforgettable experiences of my life.

Haidt refers to Durkheim, who noted that “in such a state, the vital energies become hyperexcited, the passions more intense, the sensations more powerful.” “Durkheim,” says Haidt, “believed that these collective emotions pull humans fully but temporarily into the higher of our two realms, the realm of the sacred, where the self disappears and collective interests predominate. The realm of theprofane, in contrast, is the ordinary day-to-day world where we live most of our lives, concerned about wealth, health, and reputation, but nagged by the sense that there is, somewhere, something higher and nobler…”

Haidt believes that “…[activities such as ecstatic dancing by a community] generally makes people less selfish and more loving.”

Haidt uses the metaphor of “turning on the switch” as a way to describe such ecstatic collective behavior, and provides these examples of this important behavior our culture has abandoned:

Awe in Nature … [Ralph Waldo] Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods.”

The author notes that Darwin cited such an experience in his work. He quotes Darwin to say that ‘in my journal I wrote that whilst standing in midst of the grandeur of a Brazilian forest, it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind…’

Haidt also refers to the sort of rock dance experience that closely mimics what I experienced and described above when I lived in Gainesville, Florida.

Raves…Rock music has always been associated with wild abandon and sexuality. American parents in the 1950s often shared the horror of those seventeenth-century Europeans faced with the ecstatic dancing of the ‘savages.’ But in the 1980s, British youth mixed together new technologies to create a new kind of dancing that replaced the individualism and sexuality of rock with more communal feelings….young people began converging by the thousands for all-night parties… There’s a description of a rave experience in Tony Hsieh’s autobiography…The first time Hsieh and his ‘tribe’…attended a rave, it flipped his hive switch…’What I experienced next changed my perspective forever…Yes, the decorations and lasers were pretty cool, and yes, this was the largest single room full of people dancing that I had ever seen. But neither of those things explained the feeling of awe that I was experiencing…As someone who is usually known as being the most logical and rational person in a group, I was surprised to find myself swept with an overwhelming sense of spirituality – not in the religious sense, but a sense of deep connection with everyone who was there as well as the rest of the universe. There was a feeling of no judgment…Here there was no sense of self-consciousness or feeling that anyone was dancing to be seen dancing…Everyone was facing the DJ, who was elevated up on a stage…The entire room felt like one massive, united tribe of thousands of people, and the DJ was the tribal leader of the group…The steady wordless electronic beats were the unifying hearbeats that synchronized the crowd. It was as if the existence of individual consciousness had disappeared and been replaced by a single unifying group consciousness.”

Again, the collective nature of such activity is essential to its importance for a society. “…The scene and the experience awed him, shut down his ‘I,’ and merged him into a giant ‘we.’”

Where does happiness come from, asks Haidt? “When I began…I believed that happiness came from within, as Buddha and the Stoic philosophers said thousands of years ago. You’ll never make the world conform to your wishes, so focus on changing yourself and your desires. But by the time I finished writing, I had changed my mind: Happiness comes from between. It comes from getting the right relationships between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself…We evolved to live in groups…”

One of the great, tragic losses of our age is the loss of these forms of collective effervescence through such activities as ecstatic community dancing. If we are to bond or cooperate or be happy as a community, we must restore the tradition of such collective effervescence, and shed the religiously-inspired puritan attitudes that have diminished our joy and productiveness as a community for so long.


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