Last month, some 100 people from 21 different countries met on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Marmara, a two-hour ferry ride from Istanbul. They ranged in age from about 7 to over 70, and represented a wide variety of religions or spiritual orientations. They had come to help advance unity and peace in the world in their own special way, through a practice called the Dances of Universal Peace. I had the immense good fortune to be among them.
The Dances of Universal Peace began in California in the 1960s, a time when love was in the air and flowers were in people’s hair and women wore peasant dresses. It was fertile ground for a practice that was spiritual, pluralistic, loving, and involved music. And, while much of the hippy world passed on and became dated, the dances, and their objective of creating a more united, peaceful world, are as relevant today as then, and certainly as urgent.
The dances are danced in a circle (or concentric circles), some in pairs, with musicians playing in the center. The steps are, for the most part, quite straightforward, and are often related to the words sung while dancing — mantras or prayers from many religions and spiritual practices (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Inuit, indigenous people from many countries…). The practice was founded by Samuel Lewis, often referred to as “Sufi Sam,” a Jewish American who was also a Sufi initiate, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and a teacher of Kabbalah and Christian mysticism; a man whose life was an embodiment of pluralism.
Since the ’60s, the Dances of Universal Peace have spread throughout the world, gaining a strong foothold in the Americas, Australia, and Western and Eastern Europe. The DUP international organization has now prioritized strengthening the dances in the Middle East and Africa, and this retreat, entitled “the Magic Mirror,” focused on training teachers from those regions.
I attended the retreat as a teacher-in-training. There were two of us from Israel, alongside people from Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, the USA, Ecuador, Mexico, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Poland, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, South Africa, and more. There was a woman from Iran who has served time in prison for following a Sufi path, a young musician who is a descendant of an indigenous South African tribe, the founder of a Colombian eco-village – each participant with his or her fascinating story. The meeting of these diverse people, dancing together in a dome overlooking the sea and the sunset, created absolute magic, which is difficult for me to describe, and instances of synchronicity that are hard to believe really happened.
I came to the dances by chance, what some would call coincidence, others fate, and still others, destiny. One year ago, I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook page about a spiritual gathering in Turkey inspired by a Sufi text with which I was vaguely familiar. I packed my bags and went, without knowing anyone who would be there or what would happen. And it was wondrous. There I met a “tribe” of young people who are truly committed to creating a better world, and I also met the Dances of Universal Peace. I have never looked back. This recent course was my third gathering in Turkey within a year, and all three involved the dances to some degree. In August, the first dance camp was held in Israel.
I cannot pinpoint what gives the dances their unique power to touch people, to break their hearts open. Perhaps it is the intense eye contact; perhaps it is the message of peace and pluralism; perhaps it is the energy of love and unity that the dances have accumulated over the decades, which is passed on to anyone who joins the line.
Some moments of magic and synchronicity:
There was a simple dance, with one-word lyrics — shalom — and equally simple movements: people moved from one partner to the other, holding their hands, and looking into their eyes. I didn’t dance this dance, I was in the center of the circle with the musicians, accompanying the dancers on the guitar. I watched people move from one to the next, some with tears in their eyes, others with tears streaming down their cheeks, and felt the incredible power of the simplest of dances, when people come to it with an open and vulnerable heart.
Outside of our dancing dome, the sun sparkled over the sea, and the wind rushed through the trees, with a loud, waterfall-like sound. And I thought, nature is strong and soft, and, like it, the human heart.
By chance, I sat down to eat with an American man, not Jewish, who has been dancing for over 20 years. He began to tell me about the Jewish dances he knew. One was to a Jewish renewal version of the “Barchu” prayer, a song with which I’ve been praying for about 35 years, since the time I was active in Jewish renewal in Canada. I was amazed. He proceeded to teach me the dance. My mentor, and another, Jewish-born senior mentor, didn’t know the dance, but an Iranian woman with whom I ate the next meal did, and she told me how much she loved it. She’d learned it from YouTube.
I was scheduled to teach my first dance as a teacher-in-training the following day and, of course, I chose that dance. Under a big pine tree overlooking the sea, I brought the gathering its first Jewish dance, to a song that I’d been carrying in my soul through decades and continents, transmitted to me in Turkey by a non-Jewish man, and loved by an Iranian woman. When you meet people with your heart open, what happens often defies logic.
It was Elul, when I blow the shofar every day except Shabbat. The shofar that I brought to the retreat has been all over the world with me. At the camp, people were called to activities and meals by a young Australian man blowing into a big conch shell, an Indian ritualistic instrument. I didn’t want to confuse people by blowing the shofar at another time, so I always waited for a time that the conch was being blown, and blew my shofar with it. One day, a young Turkish girl, perhaps eight years old, blew the conch, the young man blew the didgeridoo, and I blew the shofar. People stood around, clapping and photographing. But no one could possibly have been as thrilled as I at this multi-generational, multi-national, multi-ceremonial-instrumental call to gather, while beseeching God to open the gates of heaven.
What distinguished me from the other participants in the retreat was that I am an observant Jew. I usually describe myself as “flexidox,” but I observe the basic halachot of Shabbat and kashrut, and daven every morning.
While pluralism and respect for all spiritual paths is as strong a value for me as observing Jewish halacha, a gathering such as this presents certain unique challenges, insisting that I constantly examine my boundaries and limitations. What can I sing and what can I not? For example, I resist singing Ave Maria because of its decidedly Christian connotations. But could I not learn to accept Maria as a female archetype, the embodiment of a feminine energy that the world would do well to strengthen?
This is not a new struggle for me. I went through it many years ago, during my stays in Indian ashrams, when my soul connected strongly to the Hindu devotional songs but my observant-Jewish brain told me that I was forbidden to sing them. If G-d is one, and ein od milvado (there is nothing but Him), why should the names or forms by which She/He is addressed be so important and divisive? When one doesn’t accept all the rules wholesale, this is a struggle that never ends. These questions appear for me in the other direction as well. In Jewish prayer, I often change the wording, to make it more egalitarian, or to sidestep concepts that are difficult for me to accept (such as the idea of a jealous, exclusive G-d). I am constantly examining my boundaries in both directions. It is not an easy path, but I believe it is an honest one.
After the retreat, the magic and dissolution of interpersonal borders and political stereotypes continued, as Syrian refugees and Saudi tourists helped me find the old Jewish quarter, which I’d been told about by a Palestinian friend, when I got lost in Istanbul’s backstreets.
There is magic and synchronicity in the world when we let go of agendas and preconceptions and meet people as they are. When we look into their eyes and reflect our basic humanity to one another, a humanness that is the same for Israelis, Iranians, and Syrians; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Kurds and Hindus. At the most fundamental level, this is what all of us on the planet share.
I started writing this post in Elul, shortly after returning from Turkey. I struggled with trying to translate magic into words, and with attempting to contain all these experiences in a post that would not be overly blabby and long. In the meantime, a month has passed. We have entered a new Jewish year, smelled the first rain, and as we sit in our sukkot and wave our lulavim, people are once again being massacred on Syrian soil, by the army of the country that I so love. And at the same time, as hackneyed as it sounds, whenever someone posts on the retreat’s WhatsApp group, whether it is from a Turkish, American, Brazilian or Iranian phone number, I get warm fuzzies and am transported back to that enchanted, love-filled time. There are endless parallel realities, some unimaginably brutal, others magical and loving. All are part of the One, and yet they are so impossible to reconcile.
In this new year, may we all merit to look into the Magic Mirror, to experience the humanity that we all have in common, and, in so doing, strengthen the world’s positive realities. May it truly be a global Shana Tova.
For more information about the Dances of Universal Peace, see https://dancesofuniversalpeace.org. For more information about the dances in Israel, you can contact me in the comments or by Fb messenger. Moadim L’Simcha.