Dancing in the Streets (July, 2010)
Singing Together #361 Enter Rejoice & Come In
Time for All Ages Doing the Hokey Pokey
Q&A Re “things that are more fun to do with a group of people than by yourself”
Children's Recessional #1030 Siyahamba
(We Are Marching, Singing, Dancing, Walking, Laughing)
Reading #529 The Stream of Life— Rabindranath Tagore
The same stream of life
that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world
and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life
that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life
that is rocked in the ocean-cradle
of birth and death,
in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious
by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages
dancing in my blood this moment.
Singing Together # 354 We Laugh, We Cry
Sermon —Dancing in the Streets
Last year at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where I served as intern minister, we had a special Sunday honoring Glenis Bellais. Glenis was retiring after 38 years as Religious Education Administrator. The worship service focused on the many ways Glenis participated in congregational life throughout her tenure. Special guests attended from far away. There were speeches made during coffee hour, pyramids of artfully prepared colorful food stood on elegantly decorated tables, a loop of photographs ran on the big screen in the sanctuary, songs were sung, gifts were presented, tears were shed. One Cedar Lane member commented to me, “We need a celebration every day.”
This month our worship theme is spiritual practice. Often we think of spiritual practice as something done in private: walking in the woods, reflective reading, prayer, or journaling, for example. There are other modes of spirituality practiced in the company of others, such as social action, everyday mindfulness, and Sunday worship. Large-scale religious festivals are traditional in many cultures. The Indian Festival of Lights, or Diwali, is celebrated with decorative oil lamps and lanterns, new clothes, special foods, firecrackers, family gatherings, and rituals. (see cover of O/S). Diwali customs vary by region, and the festival lasts for several days centered on a new moon in October or November. This year that new moon fell on October 17, yesterday.
Last year, there was a great deal of celebration among the folks I hung out with, anticipating and celebrating the election and then the inauguration of President Barak Obama. I found the atmosphere of collective rejoicing quite remarkable, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. There was a build-up, tinged with anxiety, slightly relieved by the wonderful “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday before the Inauguration. On the Monday before, which was Martin Luther King Day, I ventured into the City to attend the celebratory release of 44 doves, one for each President, at a mosque, Masjid Mohammad. After the ceremony and reception at the mosque, I walked toward the Mall. I had planned to watch the actual swearing-in on the big screen at Cedar Lane, but I was curious about what preparations might be afoot. I was not disappointed.
Once I got within a certain radius of the Capitol, souvenirs of every description were being sold all along the streets. Tee-shirts, of course, buttons, naturally, puppets, posters, ribbons, cardboard Presidents, tote bags, scarves, gloves, hats, blankets, jewelry, banners, cups, bumper stickers: I’m sure you’ve all seen these things. I got to impersonate a local and offer directions to people looking lost on street corners. I met people who had traveled to be there from Los Angeles, from South Carolina, from Florida, from Seattle. “Where’re you from?” was on everybody’s lips.
One group of young people was differentiated amid the crowd by the orange hats they wore. Another small group costumed as farm animals handed out literature on vegetarianism. Clusters of camouflage-clad guardsmen stood on corners, wearing matching knitted hats. The familiar yellow concession stands (many more of them than usual) advertised “hot chocolate” along with “ice cold drinks.” There were long rows of green porta-potties, all still locked on Monday (I checked).
It was a bright, clear, cold day, made even brighter by smiles and laughter and high spirits. The mood of celebration was so fierce already on Monday, the day before the inauguration, that I felt satisfied on Tuesday watching the actual ceremony not on the National Mall, but in the warmth and comfort of Cedar Lane’s sanctuary, along with a couple hundred close friends.
When I went into the District on Wednesday, to attend an open house at the UUA Office for Advocacy, I found the mood on the street still celebratory and uplifting. There were no strangers. There was eye contact, there was laughter, there were jokes and conversations. At the UUA office, visitors enjoyed a facilitated discussion of the experience led by Meg Riley [UUA director of social justice ministries], and others made this same observation: there were no strangers. I was stunned to hear on the news that on Inauguration Day itself, with over a million people from all over the country gathered, not a single arrest was made. In the days leading up to the event, officials had made dire predictions—it was a scale of assemblage the capital had never before needed to manage.
I know that not everyone was equally thrilled by these events; I remind myself that even among UUs, there can be a range of political opinion. But the prevailing spirit of jubilation would have been difficult to ignore. It is also true that we can experience the exhilaration of collective festivities in contexts that are not so celebratory. In March of 2003, my partner and I attended a protest in San Francisco of the then impending invasion of Iraq. Someone in the crowd started singing “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield,” and scores of people joined in; at another point, a group of marching drummers got everyone hopping. I was thrilled by the view looking down Market Street of the many thousands who shared our sense of indignation. One person carried a banner that expressed my feelings perfectly: “Thank you for being here. I feel a little better.”
I would imagine that most of us have had some experience of “dancing in the streets” and other large-scale celebrations and festivities. Think for a moment of a time when you enjoyed the excitement of such an activity. Perhaps you yourself attended a screening of the inauguration last winter, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Burning Man. Rock concerts, sports events, and pride parades come to mind. What is it about these occasions that draws us to them, and what can we learn from reflecting on the experience? And what do they have to do with religion?
Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Dancing in the Streets, describes how group dancing is thought by anthropologists to provide the attachment needed for large groups to hold together. This was an evolutionary advantage because larger groups were safer against predators than extended families or clan-sized communities. Movement and music and physical touch are more primal, more effective binders of community than language. [repeat?] Cave paintings show people dancing, she says, but none have been found of individuals in conversation (23-24).
The worship of Dionysus in ancient Greece involved processions and dancing and feasting and drinking and ecstatic rituals. We trace the origins of the modern stage to the Athens of fifth-century BCE. The Festival of Dionysus, which took place in early spring, included theatrical competitions in a setting we might recognize as more like a spectator sport than religious ritual or theater. The festival lasted several days, and the entire population participated, possibly even including women and slaves. Classical Greek theater is thought to have evolved from a dancing ritual; the word “chorus,” which originally referred to a space within the theater structure, comes from a Greek root meaning “dance.”
In Christian medieval Europe, dancing and feasting marked many saints' days as well as the period leading up to Ash Wednesday. The practice of fasting during lent—giving up pleasures of the flesh, including drinking and feasting—created an occasion for saying farewell to meat, “vale, carne!” We also know the tradition as “Mardi Gras,” or “greasy Tuesday.”
Traditional carnaval seems to be gaining in popularity, and has become a boon for the tourist industry in Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans. The festivities are characterized by masks and costumes, indoor dancing and outdoor parades, special foods, lots to drink, and celebration of sexuality. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian cultural historian and literary theorist, has written an analysis of this tradition. His book Rabelais and His World examines the cultural context of the sixteenth-century French author. He describes a jovial disarray, a disruption of the social order where rules and roles alike were suspended for a period of time. Barriers of class, profession, and age were transcended by celebration of basic bodily functions. [Anecdote about wine & sausage in class.] The fool became king, and the king became a fool. Masks and costumes made role and identity shifting fun and easy.
The more austere Christian writers had been critical of feasting and other irreverent amusements since the very beginning, and the Protestant Reformation called into question all manner of holiday celebration. Traditional festivities were repressed all over Europe. Ruling classes feared the crowds, and they associated collective merriment with political defiance and revolt. In many places the nobility withdrew from outdoor festivities altogether, enjoying their own celebrations in private quarters. Where carnaval traditions survived, they became secularized, split off from the rituals and other religious practices that originally gave rise to them. Once secularized, they could be exploited for commerce. According to Ehrenreich, the suppression of communal celebration may be implicated in an apparent epidemic of depression sweeping Europe at the time—known then as “melancholy.” Urbanization and industrialization have created social conditions not conducive to collective rejoicing, yet festivities do erupt from time to time to give us an idea of possibilities.
“We need a celebration every day.” Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach was recently in the news as crowds rejoiced in the city’s selection as the 2016 Olympics host. In the concluding chapter of her book, Ehrenreich describes an occasion of spontaneous revelry on that same beach in Rio: a crowd of bystanders joining a group of samba dancers as they practiced for carnaval. She says, “There was no “point” to it—no religious overtones, ideological message, or money to be made—just the chance, which we need much more of on this crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration” (261). For me, worship here on Sunday mornings consists of precisely such acknowledgment. This kind of celebration has no “religious overtones,” it is the “stuff” of religion itself. The actual experience of human solidarity lifts our spirits in a way nothing else can.
It is unlikely that we will often enjoy festivities the magnitude of President Obama’s inauguration. But I believe we owe it to ourselves to grasp such opportunities for “dancing in the streets” as come our way, to “share the laughter, bear the pain, and round and round we go again: let it be a dance.”
Singing Together #311 Let It Be a Dance
Benediction — Isaiah 55
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.