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A local group gathers in Byrd Park each month to dance for a cause.

Peaceful Transmissions


It starts with silently walking in a circle in stocking feet. One after another, they join the promenade with the intention of noticing their breaths and returning to the simple pleasure of a walk that is both solitary and communal. Eventually, drums and a hammer dulcimer accompany the quiet, and a leader announces what chant and dance follow. As voices rise in unison, hands seek other hands, arms lift, feet turn, and hearts begin to open.

So begins the monthly meeting of Dances of Universal Peace, an informal gathering of people who come together to practice an international collection of contemplative dances and songs that they hope will cultivate personal and group peace, healing and celebration.

This group has been meeting at Byrd Park's Round House for several years, although Dances of Universal Peace is a much older organization, originating in 1966 with Samuel L. Lewis' distaste for the ravaging effects of war. San Franciscan-born Lewis studied a number of spiritual traditions, eventually becoming a Sufi Murshid, or teacher of the mystical branch of Islam. He is also a Rinzai Zen Master. Two meetings along his spiritual journey proved particularly influential, he says — one with Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi Master responsible for bringing the mystical branch of Islam to the West, and one with Ruth St. Denis, a dance pioneer who performed as women of great spiritual compassion such as Buddhist Kwan Yin and the Virgin Mary. These pivotal encounters led him to the belief, he says, that "to abolish war we must abolish warlike movements."

Lewis began with a modest following who practiced any of 50 dances culled from a variety of religious traditions. In the years since, his grassroots movement has spread across North and South America, Europe, India and Pakistan, and is practiced by nearly half a million people. The original 50 dances have expanded to nearly 500, drawing from a wide diversity of traditions, such as the Persian Zoroastrian religion, the Hindu sect of the Sikhs, Hinduism itself, the West Nigerian Yorba religion, and Native American beliefs.

Despite its vast embrace of numerous religious and folk traditions, the group maintains strong ties to Sufism, due primarily to Lewis's roots. Sufi Alan Schintzius, who leads the Richmond group, describes the dances as "a moving meditation .... It clears the clutter of life off the landscape and really opens a deep channel of calmness and peace."

In a typical evening, the appeal of the simple songs and dances become apparent in Schintzius' growing smile and the softening gaze of practitioners who look into each other's eyes, while holding hands or gently spinning past a continuous flow of changing partners.

"Song and movement always existed as a way to bond, connect and deepen relationships with one another and the larger realm of the divine," Schintzius explains.

That connection with self and others is strengthened through open-armed gestures and songs, often in native tongue, that emphasize vowels. The vowel sounds vibrating in the chest combined with widening arms, move energy away from the head and into the heart. The effect is relaxing and invigorating — sometimes even ecstatic.

"It's a wonderful release," says Marion Macdonald, who is a regular to the dances. "It makes me joyful. I can be right in the moment. I get to appreciate spiritual peace, a kinetic peace."

Learning the dances and chants is easy. Schintzius or any of the others who volunteer to lead a dance breaks the songs and movements into easily remembered sections — and if anyone fumbles, no one seems to mind. There's also the option of watching from the chairs along the wall and listening. Schintzius sees the aim as "direct connection with the divine." The ego, he reminds listeners, can take a break. The dances root practitioners in the sacredness of the simple gestures of the moment, be it bending over, raising arms toward the imagined sun or tending to breath.

By evening's end, the drum and hammer dulcimer still. All dancers face the circle's center holding hands as repercussions of the dances and a last chant resounds. Moments later, the group returns to a silence more open and resonant than when they started. As participants linger or prepare to leave, it's easy to glimpse the truth of Ruth St. Denis' words: "The dance of the future ... will move in harmony with the compassionate and joyous rhythms of love .… We shall sense our unity with all people who are moving to that exalted rhythm."

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