by Arjuna 28-2-2014
Somewhere in the early 90s I walked into a hall in the Bondi Pavilion, a community centre at Bondi Beach. There was a sign outside: Dances of Universal Peace. A tall very warm woman, Tomi or Hakima, greeted my partner Karen and myself and we began to dance and sing. It was around this time that I’d been to a Spirit of Learning Forum, where we did some circle dances, which I found quite captivating, however it was to taped music and we didn’t sing. This dance experience was to live music and we sang and danced. I was hooked!
I danced with Tomi for a few years and then a couple from the US came and they also led dances – that was Zubeida and Lowell, as they were known at the time. I attended the dances as often as I could and then as part of my Alternatives to Violence Training (AVP) I was introduced to the dance Haida, by Elaine Dyer from New Zealand as a Light and Lively in the AVP workshop process and I began to lead the dance in workshops, both in the community and in the prison context. It was around that time that the AVP group, who used to run weekend workshops in the lower hall of the Quaker Hall in Devonshire Street, Sydney, began to include the dances as part of the AVP training. As an AVP facilitator I found this very helpful as it would relax the participants after a hard days working looking at alternatives to violence.
Becoming a Dance Mentee
Then in 1996 my dancing friend Amrita invited me to attend a weekend workshop with Anahata, who was visiting from New Zealand. I connected to her from the start and she became my dance mentor. She came back later that year as the musician for a dance retreat by Saadi and Kamae on the theme of the Ancestors of the Dance, as well Saadi was promoting and teaching from his new book Desert Wisdom. It was also at this time that I began to connect to Hakim, a Sheikh in the Sufi Movement, who became my Sufi initiator and guide for a number of years. In the late 90s he moved to the Blue Mountains 80k west of Sydney, and he invited me to lead dances in the mountains for his Sufi mureeds. I’ve been leading dances there ever since. I also sometimes led in Sydney and in various dance outreach situations, like with my Social Ecology teachers and peers at residentials and later with my Social Ecology students in undergraduate subjects like Foundations of Well Being and Learning and Creativity, as well as in post grad subjects like Ecology and Spirituality. These courses were at the University of Western Sydney (UWS).
Through my connection to Anahata and the dance Haida, I reconnected with my Jewish roots and I began to lead meditations and dances in the Jewish community as part of a Jewish Renewal group. Some of these were inspired by practices and dances I learnt from Anahata and Saadi, and practices that were drawn from Saadi’s work and other Jewish dances in the dance repertoire like Shekhina, by Nasrudin. Later Khannah began to lead more Jewish dances and she also attended our Jewish Renewal retreats with people like Rabbi David Cooper and Shoshana Cooper, Rabbi Shefa Gold and the Sephardic cantor, Robert Esformes. This introduced a kind of Jewish Kirtan and occasionally we’d also dance. We ended these retreats with The Blessing Dance to the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan.
Dance and Sufi Experience
Since that time in the 90s, I have attended retreats with many visiting dance teachers and Sufi leaders who came to Oz. This included several with Saadi, Tasnim, Allaudin, Mariam Baker, Anahata, Prema, Tansen, Shabda, Nasrudin, Nawab, Devi Tide, Narayan, Amida, Zamyat, Radha and Alima, Wali and Arienne, Abraham and Halima… being the main ones I can recall. I began to regularly attend at the Devonshire Street dances and I went to all the locally led retreats like the Spring Renewal retreat in October, which were used as dance trainings by Sitara as she later became known. I also deepened my Sufi practice by attending the Sufi Summer School in Katwijk, Holland, twice as well as regularly attending the Australian Sufi Summer Schools with Nawab, for several years, where I was often invited to lead dances.
It was around this time that I became a certified dance leader on the occasion of Anahata’s visit to Sydney, when I led an evening of dances. Then some years later Khannah began to lead her Dance Darshan training weekends at Inana and I attended these as often as I could, which further deepened my training process in the dances.
By this stage Hakim had left the mountains, however the dances continued and as an experienced dance leader at this stage I began to informally mentor other dance leaders in the mountains like Sabira, Sofia and Karen. As well Sherry in the Sydney circle asked me to be her mentor and we started working together. Also at times I would support Robyn, Kafia and Karen to lead dances in the Sydney circle, especially musically as I was also a guitarist and occasionally the drummer. Robyn and I also led dances as part of our regular Monday night Sufi group.
Then when the January Australian Sufi Summer Schools stopped around 4 or 5 years ago, I began to attend retreats in New Zealand, and there I made a good connection with Shafia and Wendy and their Maori dances. As Anahata was now living in Brazil and the US, I had less connection with her, so I took on Shafia as my co-mentor in the dances, and I attended a number of Maori dance trainings with them. Then Sitara and Jelaludin had to return to the US and I became the senior and most experienced dance leader in Sydney, however I didn’t want to take on the role of exclusive leader so I suggested we start a Wisdom Council to lead the dances and we did. This council consisted of all the dance leaders who wanted to be part of it and we began to draw up rosters for dance leading, and whenever other dance leaders couldn’t lead I would lead the dances. Then when Khannah sadly passed away, several of her mentees officially wanted to become my mentees – so Robyn, Sabira and Kafia, became my mentees along with Sofia and Sherry. As well Jami would often ask me for guidance as he was now living in Sydney and I am now co-mentoring Gini with Sitara.
As well as the leading and mentoring I’ve done within formal dance events, I’ve done a lot of outreach over the years as a way of spreading the dances in the wider community. As I mention above there were the Social Ecology Residentials, that also led me to leading dances at a number of Spirituality Leadership and Management (SLaM) conferences at UWS. I’ve led dances at Interfaith services at places like Chapel by the Sea, a local Bondi Uniting Church and ad St. Candice catholic community; at Peace Vigils like the 21st of September, the International Day of Peace, which were in the Sydney CBD at lunchtime with city workers as well as school children of different religious denominations, this was part of the Peace Ministry Campaign; at several school venues for both teachers and students, like the Steiner School Glenaeon, the Kinma Free School in Terrey Hills, Cleveland St High School with predominantly Aboriginal children; at the Cairns Healing Centre; at the Sydney Chapter of the Theosophical Society, where I’ve also been invited to give several talks on Sufism and the dances; at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, where we had large circles of over 300 people; at a Hindu Temple and at an Interfaith group in Baulkham Hills; for refugee and migrant youth at the Adult Migrant English Centre in Sydney, where I was a teacher for several years; and at a Zen retreat on the Central Coast led by Ranchba, a local Zen teacher.
A number of original dances have blessed my life over the years. The first of these was Building Bridges, based on a song by a Venezuelan Quaker. Then over the years came The World is a Beautiful Place, May Peace Prevail on Earth, The Shamanic Alhumdulilah, the Bondi Zikr and Bereshith for Standard Tuning Guitar. For all these dances I composed the music as well as creating the dance. Two of my most popular dances have been: Angels of Peace and Yihiyu L’Ratzon ( May the words of my mouth).
Another relevant development is that while attending the Mana Dance Retreat with Abraham and Halima a few years ago, I took on Abraham as my Sufi guide. This led to visits to the US to see him and later being invited to the Jamiat Khas last year and being initiated as a Sufi guide myself in the Ruhaniat by Abraham. I was already a Cherag in the Sufi Movement and initiated in the Sufi Healing Order of the Sufi Order. So now I’m connected with all the 3 major Inayati Sufi groups.
So the Sydney circle has continued and we began to organise our own Spring Renewals in October, which last year was on the theme of the Tent of Abraham. The previous year I organised for Shafia and Wendy to come and lead a weekend of Maori Dances or the Sydney circle and the year before that, Zeb and I coordinated the Spring Renewal at the Magnolia Centre in Rose Bay.
On the national level we began to have our homegrown retreats on alternate years at the suggestion of Tansen, who could see that we now had sufficiently skilled dance leaders locally. Consequently, Zebunissa, now Noorunissa and I coordinated our home-grown Easter retreat a couple of years ago on the theme of the Pachamama Alliance work and the Change the Dream Symposiums, this year we’re in the process of planning an Easter retreat in April on the theme of Integral Consciousness. Noorunissa has been the President and I have been the Vice President of the Australian network of the dances for several years now, as we became incorporated and need to have official leaders.