Every Wednesday, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Keystone Church in Wallingford, the Dances of Universal Peace bring together a potpourri of voice and movement — chants, poems, and sacred dances that honor all the major and minor religions of the world.
Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindi, and Arabic, Irish, and English — all languages match the steady rhythm of guitars, drums, flutes and (sometimes) ukuleles. The group has met at Keystone Church every Wednesday night since 1991, continuing to operate on small, voluntary donations.
Each night, the group starts with a silent or guided walking meditation as well as an “attunement” or prayer. Participants then form a circle holding hands, with musicians and leaders inside the middle of the circle. All are welcome to join.
Still, some come just to bask in the spiritual energy of the dances. The particular choice of dance is determined each week by certified dance leaders, or leaders in training.
Samuel Murshid Lewis, the creator of the Dances of Universal Peace, was a trained Sufi and Zen Buddhist who was also involved with Christian and Jewish mysticism. His 50 songs developed with feminist and pioneer of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis in the 1960s, have grown to a collection of 500 dances. How, then, does one choose what dance to teach?
“They have to be alive in me, almost like a passion,” dance leader and musician Hayra Fatah said. “They have a certain magnetism. Dances polish the heart.”
Fatah plays a number of instruments, including guitar, clarinet and saxophone. She often leads with other dancers who are also certified, or in training. The key, according to Fatah, is to bring an “attunement” or “presence” to the evening, acknowledging the needs of those present, whether they be musician, leader, or participant. Fatah compared this ability to serving a fine meal to guests — knowing what to offer and at what moment.
Fatah acknowledged that it is not always easy to do this. Still, this emphasis on finding something sacred within dance is the core of what she and other leaders see as their purpose.
“It’s a collaborative experience with everyone involved,” she said. “There needs to be not only a receptivity to the spirit, but also [a receptivity] to the dancers themselves.”
Fatah said that newcomers should simply be willing to follow the directions of the leaders and not worry about getting words or movements exactly right. She said participants should wear loose clothing and bring a water bottle. Dances are inclusive, simple, repetitive, and taught throughout the evening.
Phil and Helen Gabel, who live in Bothell, have come to Dances of Universal Peace faithfully for 30 years.
Phil is a veteran dance leader and musician. He said that the Dances of Universal Peace have given him the ability to see the better side of himself, and feels everyone who becomes involved can have that experience as well. He said he felt the impact of media violence has created a sense of cynicism in general among people.
“Dances are an antidote to this violence,” he said.
Helen Gabel, a midwife and midwife instructor for Bastyr University, said she had no dance experience prior to joining the dances — in fact, she had been looking to join a choir when she heard about Dances of Universal Peace.
“We were hooked,” she said. “It felt like we were home. It was a perfect match.”
Martha Michael, who was raised Southern Baptist, said she heard about the dances through Interfaith Sanctuary and wanted to help create spiritual and social connections.
She had been brought to the dance by Interfaith Sanctuary co-founder Imam Jamal Rahman. Rahman said he had not been to the dances for five years and had brought Michael as his guest.
“People get a heartfelt experience, a taste of what goes beyond theology, a sense of unity and joy,” Rahman said. “They experience beauty and a connection with the source. All of these are heart experiences.”
Dances of Universal Peace is a nonprofit and is part of the Dances of Universal Peace North America and Dances of Universal Peace International. Over half a million people in 50 countries participate, with 200 groups established to date in the U.S. alone. Another Seattle chapter meets on the second Friday of each month in Shoreline.
More information can be found at seattledancesofuniversalpeace.org. A New Year’s Eve Global Peace Dance event is forthcoming.