Dancing for Collective Joy
By the end of the week I’m generally tapped out. As a result, I’m more susceptible to the magpie syndrome and easily distracted by anything bright and shiny. This week it was a link to a YouTube video sent by my mother.
It was shot in the main concourse area of a busy train station in Brussels. As I watched, the classic version of Do-Re-Mi, sung by the indomitable Julie Andrews, was suddenly heard over the loudspeakers in place of the typical announcements of arrivals and departures. By the looks on the faces of those captured in the video, it wasn’t quite what they were used to hearing.
Suddenly a tall, lanky young man started dancing. He was quickly joined by several young kids and before you could say “doe a deer”, several hundred people of all ages had taken over the central area and were dancing animatedly to the iconic song from the Sound of Music in a series of choreographed, lively and funky moves.
The best part was watching the looks on peoples’ faces as they went from initial puzzlement, to broad smiles, to clapping and bouncing, to what ultimately appeared to be total and unmitigated joy. Quite honestly as I watched it I too was smiling and laughing but also on some level, extraordinarily moved.
The images stuck with me and I found myself trying to figure out exactly what it was that touched me on such a deep level. There was just something about the rhythms, the music, and the happiness that struck a chord. I know it wasn’t just the dancing because I watch “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars” and while I enjoy them, they are more about competition and therefore more intimidating and judgmental. This was something different because it was more of a communal celebration. It made me wistful and question why it is that we have so few, or perhaps even resist altogether, opportunities to have fun together?
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Dancing in the Streets, has explored the origins of this shared celebration as a history of what she has termed “collective joy”.
Ehrenreich connects a growing epidemic of depression with our decline in group bonding rituals - think church, feasts and carnivals. She also explains how throughout history, group celebrations have brought people together in a spirit of solidarity, joy and union. These festivities have promoted not only human bonding but in some cases have been vehicles for change to fight oppression. Gay pride parades are a good example.
I’m not suggesting all our problems would be solved if we got out and danced together, but it is a classic, primeval way for people to bond together. But what’s critical is that we don’t do it anymore or, if we do, we aren’t doing it enough.
So beyond encouraging more line dancing or circle dancing and less couples dancing at our parties, can we use collective joy to help motivate people and help promote our causes?
People who are working for change need to think about how they can design their events to create this spirit of belonging and joy just as spectator sports have done. In the case of sports, they’ve often using the traditional elements of carnival by encouraging the use of team colours, face painting, chants and singing along to loud rock and roll music.
We can’t forget that people do want to experience collective joy and cohesion in artistic and fun ways. Early in my career as a recreation practitioner, we brought the opportunity via cooperative games where everyone played and there were no winners and losers. Boomers experienced it during the rock rebellion of the 60s, when music invited and encouraged people not to sit still anymore. The ultimate message, literally as well as figuratively, was to get up and move with other people.
Bringing arts, culture, music and dance into our politics can also be a way to express a vision for the kind of community, and ultimately the world, we’re seeking. Additionally it can teach the availability of joy that has nothing to do with material gain, and that it can achieved in sustainable ways that don’t impact the environment.
We have never lost the capacity for collective joy. It is part of our nature and being as humans. What we have lost are the opportunities for experiencing it. And that’s the challenge for each of us – figuring out how to bring more opportunities for collective joy into our lives, organizations and communities. It could be the best gift we ever give one another.Posted on 11-22-09
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