We don’t have ideology; we don’t have theology; we dance.
-Shinto monk to Joseph Campbell
It’s not my revolution if I can’t dance to it.
– my version of the oft-paraphrased Emma Goldman line. also the tattoo on my forearm.
From an elite perspective, there is one inherent problem with traditional festivities and ecstatic rituals and that is their leveling effect, the way in which they dissolve rank and other forms of social difference.
-Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets
It could be a bad joke. What do a Shinto monk, Emma Goldman, and Barbara Ehrenreich have in common? Though it could be a lot of things, really. But right now, I’m thinking about dancing. Dancing as ecstatic ritual. Dancing as celebration. Dancing as bonding, as a way to work out problems, as self-care and love for your body.
Dancing has been reality-show-ified (see below! ha) and commodified and sold to us again and again, but it remains something that anyone can do. It’s not about perfection and skill, at its most basic level, it’s about moving to a beat you can feel as well as hear.
Women are so often divorced from our bodies, taught to see them as a site of shame. They’re not perfect! But dancing has always been a way for me to reconnect with mine, to love it, moving it, using it, reminding myself that while it is not “perfect” it is strong, and it is mine, and it gives me pleasure. I dance in the elevator to music on my iPod and I dance in my apartment, alone, while the dog cocks his head and follows me.
Trying to write about dancing is difficult because I’m always fighting to make the words dance as well, to put a sentence together that echoes the feeling when the first chords of that perfect song (for me it’s “Rebel Rebel” or “Lust for Life” or “Just Like Heaven”) brush your ears and then swell and I can’t sit still any longer. If I’m somewhere that I can’t just dance I have to move anyway, twisting my waist and moving my hips in my seat, bobbing my head, shimmying my shoulders just a little. Writing about dancing should make you want to dance.
Nothing is more threatening to a hierarchical religion than the possibility of ordinary laypeople finding their own way into the presence of the gods. -Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich was writing about ecstatic ritual as a form of solidarity, as something that breaks down all the boundaries between classes and races and genders. She wrote of Carnival, where costumes and masks let you shed your very identity and toss social norms to the winds. She writes of a revolution that could come through dancing, not through armies marching. And isn’t the use of bands to march to just a way of stylizing and controlling the dance?
Music is my religion, or as close as this non-practicing, tattooed Jew gets. The slam-dancing of the punk rock shows of my wayward youth where boys find ways to dance touching one another without having to admit that desire, the high school dances where my girlfriends and I felt no such shame, holding hands and spinning, dipping each other. My college days where I lost my fear and scrambled up on a go-go girl’s box on a New Orleans stage or climbed up on the bar in my red glitter platforms and shook it for everyone to see. A few weeks ago on a London dancefloor mostly empty where I spun madly across the floor because there was no one to get in my way and then sat down for a breather and made a new friend for life.
It’s not a surprise that a few of my college boyfriends were bouncers in the club I danced at twice a week, 80s Thursdays and Glam Rock Saturdays, because it was their job to stand and watch the dancefloor and not join in but they watched me as I got bolder and bolder and it was Bowie, Madonna, the Bangles, Prince, Michael, T. Rex, Iggy, Siouxsie and more who brought me there. High school girl’s neurosis about extra pounds around my waist melting away as the makeup ran down my cheeks. No room for hate on the dancefloor, baby, not even self-hate.
To extract pleasure from lives of grinding hardship and oppression is a considerable accomplishment; to achieve ecstasy is a kind of triumph. -Ehrenreich
Social justice work can get you down. This morning I read what Matt wrote at 4am and though he gives me too much credit it’s true, this work crawls into your soul and hurts. And we need to realize that taking our pleasures in the face of it is liberatory in itself. In a world that denies you basic humanity sometimes, where you can be thrown out of a city or country or job you desperately need, where some corporation’s cutting corners can lead to the death of your livelihood or even the end of your life, it is positively fucking revolutionary to find something beautiful. And to do it in a group, a roomful of people moving at the same fever pitch?
Well, there’s a reason that conservatives have always tried to shut down the party, and it ain’t their concern over offensive rock and rap lyrics or drug deaths. No, it’s because they know full well what happens when we all reach that moment together when we look around and we don’t know how much the person next to us makes or where they were born or what their citizenship status is or who they sleep with or voted for, we just smile because we are there, together, and none of it matters but our basic humanness.
In my perfect society we’d subsidize musicians and public free concerts (I love you, Celebrate Brooklyn!) and dance nights to the level we subsidize corporate oil drilling and weapon-making and bailouts of massive banks. And we would all dance more. Dance however we define dancing. We would spend less time looking in and wanting (Ehrenreich is great on the difference between spectacle and festival) and more time being and being together.
Festivity–like bread or freedom–can be a social good worth fighting for. -Ehrenreich, because she’s RIGHT.