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The Spirit Moves Them

By Joseph Dalton, Albany Times-Union, Sunday, January 11, 2004

(Reprinted in Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York's Capital Region 2008)

Imagine a hymnal that includes Tibetan meditations, Hindu chants, the Jewish Kaddish and Christian songs to Jesus and Mary.

If the Dances of Universal Peace, a nearly 40-year-old practice of prayerful movement and song, had a standardized text, that's something of what it would contain. But instead, participants at "dance meetings" are taught to sing from memory short sacred phrases borrowed from or inspired by various traditions. And rather than being confined to church pews, they move about in circular patterns using simple steps akin to folk dancing.

"Some people call them walking meditations," says Farid Gruber, "even though some (dances) are joyful."

For the past six years, Gruber has led a monthly dance gathering at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Albany. This month, the group is hosting a weekend conference at the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, which starts Saturday.

The two-day workshop will explore the life and work of Ruth St. Denis, the late modern-dance pioneer. Affectionately known to her students and spiritual descendants as Miss Ruth, she is regarded as the godmother of the Dances of Universal Peace.

The conference will feature a number of St. Denis' rarely seen works and on Saturday evening there will be a dance gathering open to anyone curious to sample this tradition of reverent movement and song.

Sufi roots

" 'Spiritual' is a hard thing to put into words, but it's a genuine heartfelt experience," says Regina Dew of Albany, who for the past three years has been a regular participant in the Dances of Universal Peace. "It's a childlike glow that people get ... and you don't have to push hard for it."

A mix of Hindu, Jewish and Christian elements always has been at the heart of the Dances of Universal Peace, but they were born of Sufism. A mystical branch of Islam, Sufism is known for its distinctive practice of spinning male dancers known as whirling dervishes.

In the late 1960s, Samuel L. Lewis (1896-1971), an American Sufi master, created a body of some 50 participatory dances. They were the result of his in-depth study of world religions and his contact with Ruth St. Denis.

"Lewis' objective was to promote peace through the arts," says Gruber. "He said to Miss Ruth, 'I'm gonna solve the world's problems by teaching the children how to walk.'

Originally known as Sufi Dances, they were re-christened in the 1970s with the more inclusive name, and an international organization was established to codify and teach them.

In the ensuing years, hundreds of new dances have been created by others, and the practice has spread around the globe. All the while, the dances' multicultural embrace has become wider.

"There's always a real diversity," says Dew of a typical evening of dance. "We'll do an American Indian dance, followed by something Russian, followed by something Mexican."

While there may be no hymnal as such, the music and the steps to many of the dances have been transcribed and are published. There is also a certification and mentorship program for dance leaders. Gruber and the other leaders of the Albany dance group, Frank A. Lombardo and Virginia Miller, all have received training.

"The Dances of Universal Peace are not intended to copy religions but to invoke their spirit and their intent," says Gruber. "The sacred phrases of some traditions are out there in the air already."

An alternative

"I walked out of the dance and thought when can I do this again? ... Sign me up!" says Lombardo of his first dance gathering in Saratoga Springs more than 10 years ago. He now regularly plays guitar accompaniment for the monthly dances in Albany, and he also conceived and organized next weekend's conference.

"I like them as an alternative to what our culture seems to be saying, which is sit at home and watch the messages being transmitted to you," says Lombardo. "It's a challenge to come face to face with someone else ... and look at them as the reflection of the world around us."

Lombardo's sense of discovery is common among first-time participants.

"I was at this hippie gathering called the Rainbow Gathering and went to check it out," says Gruber of his first taste of the dances in 1984. "It was a eureka experience. ... It was, 'Throw away the drugs, here's a way to get high without chemicals.'

Raised Jewish, Gruber considered himself an agnostic until the Dances of Universal Peace put him on a spiritual path. He is now a practicing Sufi and is affiliated with the Abode of the Message, a residential Sufi community in New Lebanon. Such a complete conversion may be exceptional, but the dances have proved beneficial on many levels.

"It would be particularly helpful for someone who has lost touch with their body," says the Rev. Sam Trumbore, minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society. "There are other types of spiritual movement such as tai chi and yoga, but they don't have the same sense of community. Anybody who's depressed will get ... an easy-going uplifting connection."