Dances of Universal Peace

Aug. 16, 7-9 p.m.; Sept. 13, 7-9 p.m.


Gage Hall, Unitarian Universalist Church

4 Archdale St.

(843) 437-0365

She was looking for something. What, she wasn’t sure. But traditional religion, with its thrust of surrender and sin, its din of fear and death, was not enough.

Gail Sickel knew there must be more. Many ancient faiths populated the world. How could one be better than another? Each aims for pretty much the same set of ideals: prayer, compassion, unity, peace.

It was the 1970s, a dynamic period still roiling with the social and political upheavals of the decade before. The United States was still sunk in the quagmire of a foreign war. Coming of age amid this influence of anxiety, Sickel was part of a boom of young, idealistic Americans searching for new ways to express spirituality.

“I was looking for oneness,” she says, reflecting on that time. “I was a seeker and eventually I found an experience that was heart-focused.”

That experience was the Dances of Universal Peace.

The dances are the creation of Samuel L. Lewis, an American spiritual figure who was a disciple of Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian Muslim and visionary best known for popularizing in the West the mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism.

Lewis, whom journalists at the time somewhat condescendingly called “Sufi Sam,” was also closely associated with Ruth St. Denis, a feminist and pioneer of modern dance in America who taught Martha Graham early on. St. Denis was instumental in founding Jacob’s Pillow, the famed dance festival in New England.

In the early ’70s, after traveling the globe, studying the esoteric sects of the world’s orthodox religions, and teaching Sufism to young Americans radicalized by the draft and the Vietnam War, Lewis finally created his New Age masterpiece. He married mysticism to movement to “promote peace through the arts.”

That art is the Dances of Universal Peace.

To say “art” or “dance,” however, is a bit misleading. Martha Graham wouldn’t recognize it as art per se. These dances are a means to an end, conduits through which participants express their inner selves with sound and movement. A trained mentor guides groups of people through set dances accompanied by music and traditional prayers, each peculiar to a myriad of faiths, from Christianity to Hinduism, from pagan Celtic beliefs to Zorastrianism.

“The dances bring forth an experience that’s heartfelt,” Sickel says. “I notice the faces of people who come. When they arrive, they’re tense. When they leave, they’re so relaxed, because the idea is to internalize joy, to feel one’s self.”

One might indeed use the word “art” to describe this deeply personal act of self expression. What is art if not an individual assertion of self amid other selves? Besides, the dances are in concert with the origins of art. Art was religion in prehistory.

Art and religion have had a rocky marriage, but the divorce came only recently. Looking back at of the rise the 20th-century avant-garde — which, for the most part, aimed to subvert the complacent values of the bourgeoisie — one might wonder what role art ever had in American religious life.

But of course it did, and for a long time.

Rock or hip-hop might not exist if Martin Luther, during the Reformation, hadn’t insisted everyone sing together at church. If the 19th century had a soundtrack, it’d be the sound of noisy hymnals rising up from tent revitals and mass baptisms. The King James Bible informed the imaginations of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickenson. Whitman was considered a prophet in his time. Emerson’s Transcendentalism yielded a powerful pantheistic view of nature and a belief in the divinity of all mankind.

Thanks to modernism, art and religion parted ways until the 1980s and ’90s, when they clashed in ways familiar to us today. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority launched a pernicious campaign to purge media of “indecency.” “Piss Christ” nearly shut down the NEA. Mapplethorpe’s bullwhip landed a Cincinnati curator in jail. Chris Ofili, a British-Nigerian artist, sent Rudy Giuliani into apoplexy after using elephant dung to ornament his Virgin Mary.

Camille Paglia has called these controversies, in a 2007 Arion article, “fading sparks” of the old mid-century politics of style. It’s time to move on, she said. People need religion, and they need artists. To reunite them, modern day artists need to look back and “recover their spiritual center.”

Whether that’s happening is in doubt. Last week, an Australian judge quit a religious art contest because a short-listed painting depicted Jesus at Calvary with the words “Only Women Bleed,” a line by shock-rocker Alice Cooper. The judge said it was “deliberate ugliness.” The artist said the judge was “subjective and close-minded.”

Dances of Universal Peace, a global New Age organization of thousands, has moved in the opposite direction of history for nearly four decades, reclaiming, as Paglia suggests, art’s “spiritual center.” For Sickel and her Charleston cohort of about 25, art has been an expression of that existential mystery.

“We dance to simple songs sung from the heart,” Sickel says.