What Are Dances of Universal Peace?
When I first came upon the Dances of Universal Peace in the early 1970’s, it was an amazing new world of spiritual dancing, of being with people in a whole deeper way, of relating from our deepest being and heart. Peace had been the mantra of my growing up years, protesting the Vietnam war and its horrors, and doing non-violent love-in’s as a joyful explosion of expression, music and dance. Dances of Universal Peace felt very much at home, at the same time as completely foreign.
The Dances of Universal Peace were first formulated in the late 1960s by Samuel L. Lewis (Sufi Ahmed Murad Chisti) and were conducted in California. The original dances were strongly influenced by Samuel Lewis’ spiritual relationships with Ruth St. Denis, a modern dance pioneer, and Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi master. The influence on the dances of Sufi practices such as Sema and The Whirling Dervishes are apparent, although Samuel Lewis was also a Rinzai Zen master and drew on the teachings of various religious and spiritual traditions.
Dances were originally performed at camps and meetings with a distinctly new age and alternative feel but have increasingly been offered in diverse places of worship and more secular places such as schools, colleges, prisons, hospices, residential homes for those with special needs, and holistic health centers.
The therapeutic uses of the Dances as well as the walking meditations developed by Samuel Lewis have also been explored in various settings. The Dances have developed into a global movement due to the work of the International Network for the Dances of Universal Peace founded in 1982 by Neil Douglas-Klotz and Tasnim Fernandez, teachers in the Sufi Ruhaniat International and Sufi Order International respectively. Both have continued to be leading exponents of the Dances and Douglas-Klotz’s creation of Dances using the Aramaic words of Jesus have entered many alternative and mainstream religious circles. The Network has members in 28 countries.
The Dances consist of a teacher and musicians in the middle of a circle of participants, many or few, doing various dances from different folk and spiritual traditions, usually accompanied by the group singing as they dance. The teacher will always teach the dance in advance, an easy set of steps and movements, that people of any age can do, beginners or experienced dancers alike. The teacher often plays an instrument himself, and guitar, drums, mandolin, etc. will accompany the mesmerizing dances.
For lyrics, dances borrow inspirational poetry, quotes and chants which are sung as the dance is performed. Chants are often sacred phrases put to traditional, contemporary, or occasionally improvised melodies. A wide range of languages are used including Arabic, Aramaic, English, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit. Dance promoters use diverse religious practices, chants and languages to demonstrate how joy lives at the heart of every religion. Dance leaders promote peace for people individually, helping them experience the same One Joy through diverse dance steps, chants, and languages.
It’s a beautiful practice, which builds an embodied presence, spiritual awareness, hand-eye-body coordination, and competency in harmonizing with others through dance. I love it, and miss it.
In this pandemic, we are not able to do gatherings such as the Dances of Universal Peace. The community that is developed must sustain itself in different ways now.
My Hope for Empatharian Movement for Peace
Maybe Empatharian can become something that delivers this same or similar experience to participants. Different from Dances of Universal Peace, it doesn’t require live musicians, or a circle, or holding hands.
The beginning practice, The Empath Stretch, is inspirational, without specific nationality, though English words are used for inspiration. Spiritual joy is a benefit, not the goal, specifically. The facilitators will lead the movements, and then offer a time at the end for improvisation and interpretation. In this way it is a creative practice, as well as having specific steps and arm movements.
Generally Empatharian has a wider range of whole body movements, more stretching motions, leaning over, reaching up, arms and head moving. It’s helping increase fitness, heart rate, and flexibility, in a gentle way. The social part can be in actually communicating with the language of the movements, as well as in a talking circle afterwards, where more personal growth can occur.
Empatharian is a movement about peace-building, and so it’s creating those bridges between people, between ideas, between points of view. It’s a spiritual practice but also a physical practice, a movement meditation that can be danced at various levels and competencies. It’s an energy practice that is about generating embodiment and connection to our source energy, to our higher power. And Empatharian at its heart, is about empathy: understanding ourselves and others with a nurturing understanding.
That is true authentic joy.