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Dances of Universal Peace integrate faith traditions

While some people fill their spirits sitting in pews, about 20 from many churches and faiths in the area gather bimonthly to energize their spirits through movement, singing and being face-to-face with each other in a circle, doing Dances of Universal Peace.

Dances of Universal Peace
Bruce Calkins and Elaine Tyrie

Two participants who come at 7 p.m., first and third Thursdays at Unity Church, 2900 S. Bernard, say the simple, repetitive chants and movements help them embody their values.

Some songs are slow and thoughtful.  Others are joyous and jazzy. 

Chants and dances come from Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Native American, African, Middle Eastern and Celtic traditions.   Some are from a Latin Catholic tradition and others from African American, Aramaic, Russian or Spanish traditions.

The combination of the music and movement puts participants inside a religion, culture or language for an experience of cross-cultural group meditation.  The leader helps people pronounce the words from other languages and traditions, and explains their meaning.

Bruce Calkins, who became involved in the dances about 12 years ago and is now a leader-teacher, especially likes the dance to the words of Chief Seattle: “Every part of the earth is sacred to my people.  We are part of the earth and it is part of us.  Our God is the same God.”

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Bruce accompanies many of the songs.

Often, he said, the specific meaning of words may be less important than the “intention of the person’s heart, openness to people around the world and the desire to live in peace and love.

Sometimes words impede, Bruce said.

Elaine Tyrie said that since being introduced to Dances of Universal Peace at a retreat 10 years ago, she continues to learn.  She finds that participation “helps dissolve the separation of cultures, religions and ideas into an experience of the sacred.”

The Spokane group is among 14 in Washington and more than 210 that meet on an ongoing basis throughout the United States.  It began in the 1970s, and for a while met at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

There are also groups in Canada, Mexico, 14 European countries, seven South American countries, Russia, Japan India, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand.

In the United States, the groups often meet in Unitarian Universalist, Unity, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Mennonite, United Methodist and Friends churches, plus in yoga and other community centers.

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Dances include interaction.

Dances of Universal Peace is part of the tradition of sacred dance, celebrating sacred seasons, everyday renewal, life passages and faith values.

 The movements and songs in more than 500 dances include themes of peace, healing and celebrating life.

Based on folk-dance steps and a sacred phrase, such as “As Salaam Aleikum”—“Peace be with you”—or “Heenay MahTov”—“Oh How Good it is for Brothers and Sisters.”

Dances often use sacred phrases of Jesus—such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes—in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

Teachers share the dances in schools, therapy groups, prisons, hospice houses, drug rehabilitation centers, homes for the developmentally disabled, retirement villages, holistic health centers and ecumenical worship.

Moving to Spokane in high school and attending Marycliff and Gonzaga University, Elaine found that the openness to people of different religions from the Catholicism of her growing years was reinforced in her studies of world religions and philosophy in college.

In the 1960s, she began her career, which has included social services, elementary school counseling, and drug and alcohol counseling, and began her marriage and child-rearing years.

While Vatican II opened possibilities, it did not open enough possibilities for Elaine, so she drifted from the church.

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Most dances are in a circle representing inclusion.

Her encounter at a retreat with the Dances of Universal Peace drew her back into a spiritual expression that fit, because it incorporates many faith traditions, makes prayers into dances and moves people in circles.

“In a circle, everyone is included.  No one is left out or elevated.  A circle can expand to make room for everyone,” she said.  “I don’t do the dances to move away from the world but to bring my values into my body and my voice, so I can bring them into my life.”

Bruce said that all faiths “work for people to love each other, but religions must get along before everyone can get along. We should not let our differences separate us.”

After his first 18 years attending Grace Baptist church in Spokane, he left both Spokane and the church, and spent some time as an agnostic/atheist before returning to church through the Unitarian Universalist Church and Unity Church.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in math and economics in 1976 at Eastern Washington University, a master’s degree in economics in 1982 at Washington State University, and a masters in clinical psychology in 1990 from the University of Idaho.

Bruce, who has run Brused Books in Pullman, for 25 years, has also been involved with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, Global Folk Art, contra dance, caring for elderly relatives and backpacking.

The Dances of Universal Peace, also known as “Sufi Dancing,” began in the late 1960s in San Francisco under Samuel Lewis, a Sufi teacher and Zen master, who had studied the traditions of Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity.  Influenced by Hazrat Inayat Khan, who first brought Sufism to the West in 1910, and Ruth St. Denis, a feminist pioneer in modern dance in America and Europe, Samuel wanted to connect young people with their spirituality and with peace through arts.

Bruce said the message of Sufism is that the same truth is accessible through all traditions.

“In school and work, we can become lost in head understandings of and explanations about love rather than engaging in loving and connecting with people,” Bruce said.  “Love is about loving people—strangers, even enemies.”

Elaine told of driving back from the Coast recently in bad weather.  Tense, she remembered to breathe in gratitude and breathe out peace to help her relax.  In other circumstances, she brings the simple messages to mind, which she said helps bring the dances to her life.

“The dances and songs take me into my heart and away from the confusion thoughts can bring,” said Elaine, who also attends classes on Sufi offered by Baraka, which sponsors classes and workshops, as well as the dances.

“We talk about Sufi practices, not religion, and a Sufi path referring to experiencing the sacred through a poem, music, meditation, circle, community and the broad brush of experiences,” said Elaine, a grandmother who volunteers for the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and a local disaster response organization teaming with Komari, Sri Lanka, a community recovering from the December 2004 tsunami.

In the Dances of Universal Peace, no one is asked to give up his or her faith as a Christian or questioning as an agnostic.  Each is encouraged to continue to explore through his or her own ways.

“It has been a gift that has helped me experience Christianity deeply, differently and in new ways,” she said.  “I experience the blessings of traditions I knew nothing about before.”

Troubled by the exclusiveness of the systems in place, Elaine and Bruce said people can see positive options available if they open their eyes and let go of fear.

Doing the Dances of Universal Peace brings Bruce peace, strength and joy, and motivates him and others to be involved in peacemaking activities.

For Elaine, promoting the living wage, nonviolence, micro-lending and fair trade are inclusive ways to resolve problems that relate with the values she uplifts in the dances.

“These solutions communicate that everyone has value and a place, despite the societal, economic and political system that works well for those who receive the multi-million dollar stock options, but does not care about those who work hard,” she said.

Elaine added that it’s easy to become caught up with what’s happening and forget “the peace I seek to be.”

For information, call 220-5160.

 

Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © March 2007