Ruth St. Denis and the Dances of Universal Peace

Ruth St. Denis, noted modern dancer, was a teacher and colleague of Murshid Sam Lewis, the founder of Sufi Dancing (Dances of Universal Peace). These two articles were published in the Albany Times Union newspaper as part of its coverage of "Honoring the Divine Dancer," the Ruth St. Denis festival which took place place in January, 2004, at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, NY. The first focuses on Ruth St. Denis, the second, the Dances of Universal Peace. We hope you enjoy reading them!

St. Denis Put Mark on Modern Dance

By Joseph Dalton, Staff writer
Albany Times-Union, Sunday, January 11, 2004

A pioneering solo dancer, choreographer and teacher, Ruth St. Denis (1878-1968) was a pivotal figure in American modern dance. Although she may not have wide name recognition, her work might be considered a bridge between Isadora Duncan's free-form expression and Martha Graham's more codified technique. Her influence is no less great.

St. Denis began her career as a "skirt dancer" in vaudeville in the 1890s. After the turn of the century, she toured Europe and America as a soloist, performing in dances of her own creation that were characterized by an exotic mystique and elaborate costumes.

In 1915, she and her husband, the dancer Ted Shawn, founded the legendary Denishawn school and company. Among their students were Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Louis Horst.

"It was the soil through which American modern dance grew," says Frank A. Lombardo, organizer of the upcoming Ruth St. Denis conference at the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. (St. Denis and Shawn are both members of the Hall of Fame.)

Only after Lombardo began work on the conference did he discover that Saratoga Springs was an especially appropriate location: It was the site of St. Denis and Shawn's wedding, in 1914.

"They (also) began a tour at the (Canfield) Casino in August 1914, the same summer that World War I broke out," Lombardo says. "I've looked at newspapers which have ads for their upcoming performances beside stories of countries joining in battle."

In the early 1930s, St. Denis and Shawn dissolved their personal and professional bonds. Shortly thereafter Shawn founded Jacob's Pillow, the dance festival in the Berkshires that continues to this day.

After a period of semi-retirement, St. Denis returned to dance in the 1940s after settling in Los Angeles. The spirituality of dance played an increasingly important role in her later work, and she continued to dance into her 80s.

"Sometime during the 1940s, she founded the Church of the Divine Dance," says Adrian Ravarour, president of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation in California. "I believe it met on Wednesdays, and they would sit and meditate and Ruth would talk about dance coming from your own divine source. Through all of her works, she was looking for a spiritual authenticity."

Ravarour estimates that currently there are only about 10 performances of St. Denis works per year. However, all of her major dances were videotaped over the past 20 years in performances by her late student Karoun Tootikian.

St. Denis was a pivotal inspiration for Sharry Underwood, a retired dancer from Burlington, Vt., who leads the Dance Arte company. In the summer of 1942, St. Denis came to Jacob's Pillow as a guest teacher at the invitation of Shawn. Underwood, a college student still tentative as a dancer, was also there.

"It was an orgy in good and evil," says Underwood of St. Denis' lecture and dance class. "She wanted us to dance out the good in us and the bad in us."

Underwood will share more of her memories in a lecture on the first day of the upcoming conference. She says that St. Denis also provided her exposure to the intellectual underpinning of dance for the first time.

"She had sapphire eyes and was very worldly but very spiritual and ethereal on stage," says Underwood. "I just loved her because she loved the world."


The Spirit Moves Them: Devotees Find a Sense of the Sacred in the Multifaith Dances of Universal Peace

By Joseph Dalton, Staff writer
Albany Times-Union, Sunday, January 11, 2004

Imagine a hymnal that includes Tibetan meditations, Hindu chants, the Jewish Kaddish and Christian songs to Jesus and Mary.


If the Dances of Universal Peace, a nearly 40-year-old practice of prayerful movement and song, had a standardized text, that's something of what it would contain. But instead, participants at "dance meetings" are taught to sing from memory short sacred phrases borrowed from or inspired by various traditions. And rather than being confined to church pews, they move about in circular patterns using simple steps akin to folk dancing.

"Some people call them walking meditations," says Farid Gruber, "even though some (dances) are joyful."

For the past six years, Gruber has led a monthly dance gathering at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Albany. This month, the group is hosting a weekend conference at the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, which starts Saturday.

The two-day workshop will explore the life and work of Ruth St. Denis, the late modern-dance pioneer. Affectionately known to her students and spiritual descendants as Miss Ruth, she is regarded as the godmother of the Dances of Universal Peace.

The conference will feature a number of St. Denis' rarely seen works and on Saturday evening there will be a dance gathering open to anyone curious to sample this tradition of reverent movement and song.

Sufi roots

" 'Spiritual' is a hard thing to put into words, but it's a genuine heartfelt experience," says Regina Dew of Albany, who for the past three years has been a regular participant in the Dances of Universal Peace. "It's a childlike glow that people get ... and you don't have to push hard for it."

A mix of Hindu, Jewish and Christian elements always has been at the heart of the Dances of Universal Peace, but they were born of Sufism. A mystical branch of Islam, Sufism is known for its distinctive practice of spinning male dancers known as whirling dervishes.

In the late 1960s, Samuel L. Lewis (1896-1971), an American Sufi master, created a body of some 50 participatory dances. They were the result of his in-depth study of world religions and his contact with Ruth St. Denis.

"Lewis' objective was to promote peace through the arts," says Gruber. "He said to Miss Ruth, 'I'm gonna solve the world's problems by teaching the children how to walk.'

Originally known as "Sufi Dances," they were re-christened in the 1970s with the more inclusive name, and an international organization was established to codify and teach them.

In the ensuing years, hundreds of new dances have been created by others, and the practice has spread around the globe. All the while, the dances' multicultural embrace has become wider.

"There's always a real diversity," says Dew of a typical evening of dance. "We'll do an American Indian dance, followed by something Russian, followed by something Mexican."

While there may be no hymnal as such, the music and the steps to many of the dances have been transcribed and are published. There is also a certification and mentorship program for dance leaders. Gruber and the other leaders of the Albany dance group, Frank A. Lombardo and Virginia Miller, all have received training.

"The Dances of Universal Peace are not intended to copy religions but to invoke their spirit and their intent," says Gruber. "The sacred phrases of some traditions are out there in the air already."

An alternative

"I walked out of the dance and thought when can I do this again? ... Sign me up!" says Lombardo of his first dance gathering in Saratoga Springs more than 10 years ago. He now regularly plays guitar accompaniment for the monthly dances in Albany, and he also conceived and organized next weekend's conference.

"I like them as an alternative to what our culture seems to be saying, which is sit at home and watch the messages being transmitted to you," says Lombardo. "It's a challenge to come face to face with someone else ... and look at them as the reflection of the world around us."

Lombardo's sense of discovery is common among first-time participants.

"I was at this hippie gathering called the Rainbow Gathering and went to check it out," says Gruber of his first taste of the dances in 1984. "It was a eureka experience. ... It was, 'Throw away the drugs, here's a way to get high without chemicals.'

Raised Jewish, Gruber considered himself an agnostic until the Dances of Universal Peace put him on a spiritual path. He is now a practicing Sufi and is affiliated with the Abode of the Message, a residential Sufi community in New Lebanon. Such a complete conversion may be exceptional, but the dances have proved beneficial on many levels.

"It would be particularly helpful for someone who has lost touch with their body," says the Rev. Sam Trumbore, minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society. "There are other types of spiritual movement such as tai chi and yoga, but they don't have the same sense of community. Anybody who's depressed will get ... an easy-going uplifting connection."