What's the difference between a tribe of Native Americans and a bunch of British teachers? Not that much when it's Universal Dance day down at a local hall. Martin Whittaker swayed along...
The dancers stand in a circle and join hands. They begin to move slowly, chanting an ancient song to a strummed guitar. The song, called Wishi Ta, is about a river and comes originally from the Native American Crow tribe. "This is a meditative dance," whispers the teacher, Amida Harvey.
These are the Dances of Universal Peace, and through them the devotees aim to "come to know more of our true selves, so bringing peace, joy and unity to ourselves and others".
Among these devotees who tonight meet in the Lancaster Friends Meeting House are several teachers, including Alice Saunders, who says the Dances have transformed her life. Ten years ago, at the age of 54, she could hardly walk because of the the pain in her hip from osteoarthritis which forced her to give up her job as an advisory teacher for children with special needs. Today Alice, from Sherborne in Dorset, is known to the other dancers as Fatah, which means "opener of doors, remover of obstacles". She still walks with a slight limp but otherwise looks fit and well.
This sprightly figure is a huge transformation from the old Alice. "There was a postbox less than 100 yards down the road but it was a major expedition for me to walk down there and post a letter. I could hardly stand some days - I was in agonising pain. All my GP could offer me were painkillers and a worsening condition."
Then she found out about Dances of Universal Peace. "I began to go to various events, and gradually I was able to join in more. It's very supportive to hold hands in a circle, and I found I was able to move a little faster than on my own."
Today Alice is a trained teacher of the Dances, and its UK network co-ordinator. She says: "This is a wonderful thing for teachers to do for themselves, as well as for children and young people."
The Dances were started in the United States in the late 1960s by Samuel L Lewis, a soil scientist and teacher in Sufism, an ascetic mystical movement of Islam dating back to the 8th century. Lewis envisaged a form of dance which would embody Sufi teachings - that at the heart of all religions lies the same truth.
The 50 original dances he created have now grown to 500 which have spread throughout the world via an international network of trained dance leaders who draw songs and chants from a range of spiritual traditions, including Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Christian.
The Dances reached Britain in the early Eighties through Amida Harvey, who trains people to become Dances teachers. He first came across them while staying in a Shaker community in the United States.
"The Dances are very welcoming," he says. "People feel included by them. They feel they're coming home to something, being together with others, being trusting and more open." Sue Allard, a teacher at Norbriggs Primary School in Mastin Moor, Chesterfield, saw the Dances of Universal Peace advertised at her yoga class. She says: "You have a complete day with like-minded people. Because it's so meditative and calming, you really have no room for anything else in your head. It's very relaxing.
"I have used it in school with some of the chants from the Native American tradition. It gives the children an introduction to different cultures."
Penny Clarke is equally enthusiastic. She teaches Year 5 at Killamarsh Junior School, Sheffield, and says: "It's very much a feeling of coming home. It centres me and helps get all the petty things into perspective. When I go back into school on a Monday morning I feel much more in touch with why I went into teaching in the first place, which is to work with children.
"It's the marking and all the admin side that tends to get me down. This gets me into a saner and healthier perspective."
For more information on Dances of Universal Peace, see their website at www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org.uk, or contact Alice Saunders at Penny Farm Cottage, Holwell, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 5LU. Tel: 01963 23124
DANCE STEPS AROUND THE WORLD
* Aboriginal dance styles vary throughout hundreds of tribal groups in Australia, with dances often imitating animals. Some dances are sacred and part of ritual while others are light-hearted that everyone can share.
* Native American dance is colourful and steeped in symbolism. It is still celebrated at events like the Red Earth festival in Oklahoma. Examplesinclude the Grass Dance, in which dancers replicate the movement of blowinggrass on the prairie.
* In India many classical dance stylesare still performed, including the2,000-year-old Bharat Natyam.Also thriving is Kathakali, a combination of music and drama, telling talesfrom Hindu mythology. Performances can last a whole night.
* The Japanese still perform No drama, which includes mime, music and chanting developed from religious dances of the 14th century.
* England's Morris and May Day dances hark back to pagan spring festivals.
Dance steps around the world