Dances of Universal Peace: Reaching a greater spirit through community
It is a dream everyone shares (or should): People of the world joining hands and singing in the spirit of peace and harmony. At Duluth's Dances of Universal Peace, you might find just that, albeit on a much smaller scale. Dances of Universal Peac...
It is a dream everyone shares (or should): People of the world joining hands and singing in the spirit of peace and harmony.
At Duluth's Dances of Universal Peace, you might find just that, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Dances of Universal Peace is a nondenominational form of prayer set to music and dance. Each prayer consists of a brief, melodic phrase and is accompanied by simple body movements that are repeated several times.
The chants and dances incorporate aspects from major religions -- concentrating mostly Christianity, Judaism and Islam. However, many Asian religions have also inspired some dances.
L. Salima Rael Swenson, the coordinator and dance leader, has been involved in Dances of Universal Peace since the mid-1970s.
To her, the dances are very special.
"It felt like coming home," she said.
The dances do not reflect any particular religion, but they do depict a common spiritual path.
"I love all religions," Swenson said, adding that through the dances she can participate in many paths that she otherwise may not have been able to.
Dancer and musician Kelly Smith also expresses that belief.
"One voice and one movement puts you in a state that helps you connect with the greater spiritual forces," he said, noting that the dances are also therapeutic.
"The vibrations in your chest from repeating the chants free up stuck stuff," such as emotions and negative thoughts, he said. The dances have been known to lift moods and boost spirits, participants claim.
Sam L. Lewis, a practitioner of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, pioneered Dances of Universal Peace. Lewis studied many spiritual traditions that he incorporated into the dances practiced today.
Currently, more than 500 dances are practiced by approximately 500,000 people around the world.
Carol Orban, a dance leader and musician for 16 years, drives down from Ely to make the meetings whenever she can. She enjoys the universality of the practice.
"It's very cross-cultural," she noted.
Orban said that a dance is first inspired from a meaningful phrase, religious text or traditional dance. Then the author will develop body movements that fit with the vocals.
Later, the dance is introduced to the community around the world.
As a leader, Orban went through several years of training and mentoring. She says Dances of Universal Peace is "a way of becoming attuned to as many sacred traditions as possible."
Members have gathered in Duluth for the past 15 years. According to Smith, roughly 12 years ago the group had about 40 members. As time has passed, however, group dynamics have changed. Membership declines faster than new members join.
"We need people to do circle dances!" Smith said.
Anyone is welcome to join, and the group is happy to see new faces. One new member, Birch Cappetta, decided to "step outside [her] comfort zone" and attend a dance with her friend, Selene Aswell.
Aswell said she attends the dances because they are "a great spiritual experience."
She said they also made her feel more comfortable in town. Aswell, who moved from Oregon, said she often misses her family and home but found reassurance and belonging in the group.
To participate, you need not be a virtuoso or a ballerina. The melodies are not set, and movements typically involve slow walking or twirling and sweeping arm gestures.
The members come from every age group, and the local outfit is comprised of mostly women. A few bring their children, who play quietly in the corner -- while the bouncier ones join in a few of the dances.
Upon arrival, dancers may appear flustered and a bit stressed after a long day. Once the dances begin, however, you can almost see a wave of warm feelings reviving them.
The evening begins with a general prayer. Everyone joins hands to form a circle as Swenson leads. Those who are familiar with it speak along, while the others bow their heads in reverence. She then gives background on the first dance, an Islamic dance of forgiveness. She explains the dance as a healing prayer attained through forgiveness in order "to be reunited with one's ideal."
The dancers then move gently in a circle, softly singing the same phrase for several minutes until the dance is completed.
"It's a beautiful practice," Orban said, "a way to understand the unity within all religions."
This is freelance writer Beth Koralia's first article for the Budgeteer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .