Sunday, June 03, 2007

May I have this dance, Barbara? Revolutionary Dancing!

Dance, Dance, Revolution
By BARBARA EHRENREICH , New York Times, June 3, 2007
COMPARED with most of the issues that the venerable civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel takes up, this one may seem like the ultimate in urban frivolity: Late last month, he joined hundreds of hip-hoppers, salsa dancers, Lindy Hoppers and techno-heads boogying along Fifth Avenue to protest New York City’s 80-year-old restrictions on dancing in bars.

But disputes over who can dance, how and where, are at least as old as civilization, and arise from the longstanding conflict between the forces of order and hierarchy on the one hand, and the deep human craving for free-spirited joy on the other.
New York’s cabaret laws limit dancing to licensed venues. They date back to the Harlem Renaissance, which had created the unsettling prospect of interracial dancing.
For decades, no one paid much attention to the laws until Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, bent on turning Manhattan into a giant mall/food court, decided to get tough. Today, the city far more famous for its night life than its Sunday services has only about 170 venues where it is legal to get up and dance — hence last month’s danced protest, as well as an earlier one in February.
Dust-ups over dancing have become a regular feature of urban life. Dance clubs all over the country have faced the threat of shutdowns because the dancing sometimes spills over into the streets. While neighbors annoyed by sleepless nights or the suspicion of illegal drug use may be justified in their concerns, conflict over public dancing has a long history — one that goes all the way back to the ancient Mediterranean world.

The Greeks danced to worship their gods — especially Dionysus, the god of ecstasy. But then the far more strait-laced Romans cracked down viciously on Dionysian worship in 186 B.C., even going on to ban dancing schools for Roman children a few decades later. The early Christians incorporated dance into their liturgy, despite church leaders’ worries about immodesty. But at the end of the fourth century, the archbishop of Constantinople issued the stern pronouncement: “For where there is a dance, there is also the Devil.”

The Catholic Church did not succeed in prohibiting dancing within churches until the late Middle Ages, and in doing so perhaps inadvertently set off the dance “manias” that swept Belgium, Germany and Italy starting in the 14th century. Long attributed to some form of toxin — ergot or spider venom — the manias drove thousands of people to the streets day and night, mocking and menacing the priests who tried to stop them.
In northern Europe, Calvinism brought a hasty death to the old public forms of dancing, along with the costuming, masking and feasting that had usually accompanied them. All that survived, outside of vestiges of “folk dancing,” were the elites’ tame, indoor ballroom dances, fraught, as in today’s “Dancing With the Stars,” with anxiety over a possible misstep. When Europeans fanned out across the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the colonizers made it a priority to crush the danced rituals of indigenous people, which were seen as savagery, devil worship and prelude to rebellion.
To the secular opponents of public dancing, it is always a noxious source of disorder and, in New York’s case, noise. But hardly anyone talks about what is lost when the music stops and the traditional venues close. Facing what he saw as an epidemic of melancholy, or what we would now call depression, the 17th-century English writer Robert Burton placed much of the blame on the Calvinist hostility to “dancing, singing, masking, mumming and stage plays.” In fact, in some cultures, ecstatic dance has been routinely employed as a cure for emotional disorders. Banning dancing may not cause depression, but it removes an ancient cure for it.

The need for public, celebratory dance seems to be hardwired into us. Rock art from around the world depicts stick figures dancing in lines and circles at least as far back as 10,000 years ago. According to some anthropologists, dance helped bond prehistoric people together in the large groups that were necessary for collective defense against marauding predators, both animals and human. While language also serves to forge community, it doesn’t come close to possessing the emotional urgency of dance. Without dance, we risk loneliness and anomie.
Dancing to music is not only mood-lifting and community-building; it’s also a uniquely human capability. No other animals, not even chimpanzees, can keep together in time to music. Yes, we can live without it, as most of us do most of the time, but why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate our own communal pleasures out of music and dance?
This is why New Yorkers — as well as all Americans faced with anti-dance restrictions — should stand up and take action; and the best way to do so is by high stepping into the streets.