A Dancing Ecology Downunder

by Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss PhD
10/3/2013

The “Sufi Message” is an answer to the cry of humanity today; at this moment, when materialism is all-pervading and commercialism is continually on the increase.

The “Sufi Message” respects all Religions, recognises all Scriptures, regards all the Prophets held in esteem by large sections of humanity, and is the Source and Goals of all “”His Wisdom in the One”.

Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan at the American Radio in 1926

What does dance do for us? First and foremost, it inculcates the sense of rhythm and enhances our response to rhythm. This is really a response to life. It makes us more living, which is to say, more spiritual. It brings out beauty of form and movement, and envelops our personalities in the enjoyment of them. It takes us beyond ourselves, bringing an initial taste of the state of non-being, which is really a balm for the soul.

Murshid Samuel Lewis

The Dances of Universal Peace, as described by Murshid here, are one of the primary spiritual practices in my life. I also do practices drawn from Universal Sufism, Renewal Judaism, Engaged Buddhism, Urban Shamanism and Yoga. This diversity of practices, drawn from different cultural traditions reflects the situation in the multicultural Australia of today. My practices were not always so diverse, just as Australia was not always so conscious of its cultural diversity or of its biodiversity.

When I arrived in Australia in the 1950s it was very much a British colony in the South Pacific. A British monoculture dominated the society. Present day multicultural Australia was only officially recognised in the 1970s. Aboriginal people were not recognised as citizens of Australia until 1967. British agricultural practices imported by the colonists almost turned Australia into a desert twice in 200 years. The colony itself resulted from the invasion of Aboriginal land. Hundreds of Aboriginal cultures and native species of plants and animals unique to this country were destroyed. The great irony was that the uniqueness of fauna and flora here had fascinated British scientists like Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin. It had contributed to Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. On the other hand the colonists had mercilessly massacred Aboriginal people and devastated the delicate ecosystem by inappropriate agricultural practices.

So how does this relate to the Dances of Universal Peace you ask? As Arjun of Colombia writes in his inspiring article, we are facing a planetary crisis ecologically. In that sense Australia can be regarded as a case study of how this crisis has come about. Practicing the dances in Australia can then be regarded as part of a healing process for both the people living here and the land itself. Just last Saturday, at our regular biweekly dance meeting in the Quaker Hall in Sydney, we focussed on a theme of dances inspired by indigenous traditions. The first four of these were drawn from the Native American traditions and celebrated Beauty, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth as our Mother. Australian Aboriginal people also celebrate the Earth as our mother, however we have yet to create a dance in an Aboriginal language that celebrates this. Two of the last three dances were inspired by the Maori tradition and one by the Hawaiian tradition. Given that Australia is an island in the South Pacific, there was some geographical relevance to having these dances as part of the evening. Australia is part of the cultural ecology of the Pacific Ocean, even if this is rarely acknowledged.

It was this lack of acknowledgement of cultural ecology in Australia that inspired me to become involved in the work of the Pachamama Alliance.  This work involves facilitating a symposium called ‘Changing the Dream, Awakening the Dreamer’, in which we present through videos and discussion the situation facing the planet to small groups of people to encourage them to take action. The Pachamama Alliance grew out of the crisis faced by the Achuar, an indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, whose land was being threatened by the petrol companies that had devastated much of Ecuador already. The basis of the symposium is that the crisis facing the Achuar is also facing the whole planet. It is attributed to three interactive factors: the unsustainable ecological practices of the industrial world; a lack of social justice in neo-liberal capitalist economics; and a lack of spiritual fulfilment in our post-modern urban lifestyle. As a social ecologist, the symposium has become a way to share my concerns with my community.

Having been involved with the dances since the early 90s, I felt I wanted to share the symposium with members of my dances community. There is a resonance between the work of the symposium and the dances. Both are about deep peacemaking. The dances clearly address the lack of spiritual fulfilment, the third factor that has triggered this crisis, and as these factors are interactive and interdependent, if we directly address one of these we are indirectly addressing all three. After several dance leaders had also experienced the symposium, this resonance led to us making the symposium the theme of our home-grown retreat in April of 2011.

In Australia the dance community has established a pattern of having annual dance retreats around the Easter Holidays. On alternate years we have decided to have home-grown retreats, so our Australian dance leaders can have the opportunity to lead longer sessions of dances to larger groups. Given the large geographical size of Australia and its relatively small population, there is often difficulty in maintaining regular dance meetings in certain parts of the country. So some leaders have little opportunity to lead dances. The home-grown retreats have proven useful for that reason.

In 2011 we focussed on this theme of Pachamama by focussing creation dances inspired by indigenous traditions and the Abrahamic traditions. This included Maori, Native American, Hawaiian as well as Hebrew, Sufi and Aramaic inspired dances. We followed the four-fold structure of the creation centred spirituality, which flowed well with the structure of the symposium.  Each evening we would watch a few short videos drawn from the symposium and have some discussion around the issues they raised. This proved to be an effective way to connect with indigenous culture in an Australian context where we still have very little Aboriginal inspired dances. There is the dance Dreamtime, the phrase Youndoo Wunjibo as part of the Peace Greeting, the song Lancha and my own dance The World is a Beautiful Place, but that is all. Two of these indigenous contributions came out of a day I organised in the late 90s called Dancing the Land. I’d been working with indigenous artists as part of my work with the Adult Migrant English Service and I invited these artists to have a cultural exchange with the dances community. There had also been some connection with some of the women in the dances with some dreaming camps in the 90s where dances were led. Hopefully one day we’ll develop more connection with the Aboriginal culture, but at this time it has only happened in a marginal way.

This is not untypical of Australia as I discovered last year when I attended a retreat in rural Victoria at the Centre for Ecology and Spirituality on the theme of Integral Consciousness as conceived by Jean Gebser, Thomas Berry, Teilhard de Chardin, Joseph Campbell  and Brian Swimme. The leader of this centre had studied with Matthew Fox and was occasionally leading dances from the Creation Centred Spirituality booklet. A woman who worked at the centre was also leading dances in the Goddess tradition. One of their members was very passionate about the Aramaic Lord’s prayer work of Saadi, but they had never experienced the dance so I led the first line for them. They had no formal connection with the network of the dances.

This geographical challenge, where the Perth dancers are some 4000 kilometres from the Sydney dancers, has led to many of us travelling to New Zealand to attend dance retreats there. This trans-Tasman connection has been growing in the dances over the years and led to Shafia and Wendy from Aotearoa New Zealand leading a long weekend of Maori dances at our Spring Renewal retreat at the Karuna Centre, a Buddhist retreat centre in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This had grown out of these travels to New Zealand by several dance leaders, like myself, who wanted to share these wonderful dances with our Australian community. Thus the Maori dances have become part of our Australia. In a similar way travels to the USA by Zebunissa, Muh’mina, Karuna Noor, Karen, myself and others, and to the UK by Khannah to Saadi’s training, as well as the long term presence of people from North America like Sitara and Jelaludin’s and Hakima Tomi Greentree in Australia, have left their mark on our dance community. As have all the international leaders that have come here since the early 90s when the dances became more established here.

Today the dances fulfil several functions in Australia: they contribute to celebrating cultural diversity; they recognise the value and depth of indigenous cultures; they celebrate the beauty and richness of nature; they contribute to making Australia a more peaceful society and they provide spiritual fulfilment to the community of dancers as we eat, dance and pray together through songs, dances and stories on the theme of Universal Peace. As such I believe they address some of the ecological and spiritual crises that we are facing in Australia as much as in the contemporary world.

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