`Body prayer': Group dances for healing and peace

April 10, 2003|By Fay Lande

Mansur Richard Conviser studies the delivery of health services to uninsured people living with HIV/AIDS for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mansur is his Sufi name. In his spare time, the Glenwood resident teaches Dances of Universal Peace.

"A lot of dancing, when it's connected with dating, is about emphasizing one's individuality and specialness," Conviser said. "These dances, you blend with other people in doing the dances. A lot of what really draws me to the dances is that I lose my self, or my false self, if you like, in the process of doing the dances. So I'm there with others creating a community."

Created in the 1960s in San Francisco by Samuel L. Lewis, the dances include phrases and mantras from a variety of spiritual traditions. Lewis studied the mystical aspects of several world religions and was deeply influenced by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a musician and spiritual emissary who popularized Sufism in the United States. Another influence was Ruth St. Denis, a pioneer of modern dance who combined movement with spiritual aspiration, and whom Lewis met.

After a heart attack in 1967, Lewis - who became a Sufi and Zen Buddhist teacher - said he had received a divine visitation designating him spiritual leader of the hippies.

In a session at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Sunday, Conviser and others led 16 people, four of them new to the practice, in a series of dances accompanied by singing and chants.

Conviser first learned about Lewis and his dances in the 1970s. "I attended a healing gathering and ... the one activity there that really captured my heart were the Dances of Universal Peace, because it seemed that everybody else was sort of a huckster," he said.

Fifteen years or so later, when he was living in Portland, Ore., he saw a flier, went to a session and was hooked.

"I experienced a great sense of joy and euphoria and relief from the dances. Aside from the words that we speak and sing, the focus is not on words; we participate in the act with our whole body. In fact, some people refer to dances as body prayer," Conviser said. "I've seen the dances bring up very deep emotions in some people, both joy and tears."

The group meets on the first Sunday of each month at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glenwood. There are two more sessions before the summer break.

Information: 410-489-7981.

A dance circle led by Richard Martin meets on the first Friday of each month at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville.

Information: 410-442-1320.

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