Evanston resident introduces dances to promote peace at local church

Jia You

By Jia You

the daily northwestern

The Dances of Universal Peace is an international organization that seeks to promote peace with simple circle dances that draw on the sacred phrases, music and movements of various cultural traditions. Donna Schiller, a 54-year-old Evanston resident and a member of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, is seeking to reintroduce the Dances of Universal Peace to other residents. She has taught dances at the church during the International Day of Peace, and more recently, during the Earth Day celebration.

Daily: How would you define the Dances of Universal Peace?

Schiller: I suppose if I had to define it, it would be a simple way of bringing about peace and joy to the community. It’s kind of like rediscovering reverence, creativity and a body-based connection to the natural world.

Daily: What’s so special about these dances?

Schiller: The dance lyrics contain sacred phrases in their native languages, and special attention is given to ensure that there’s time to pronounce the foreign words comfortably and correctly. The leaders usually make a point to have the group first speak, then sing the unfamiliar words … And the mood the dances invoke is usually feelings of love, joy and compassion, whether it were invoking the compassion of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin or celebrating the playful energy of Krishna.

Daily: How did you get involved with it?

Schiller: It was 20 years ago. I went to a winter solstice celebration at Wheaton, and there was a woman there doing Dances of Universal Peace. I was, you know, a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure exactly what it’s about. Then I learned a couple more dances and then I realized that they celebrate all spiritual traditions, which I really appreciate … And I just kept going to the dances, and I regularly dance at Oak Park.

Daily: So what’s your plan for Evanston?

Schiller: Well, in Evanston, we don’t have regular dances. Now that I’m a member of the (Unitarian) Church, I’m thinking about reintroducing the dances. People are getting to know who I am, and now, with our second dance gathering (during the Earth Day celebration), people are really showing interests. I am currently in a leadership certification training … so that I can have my own dance circle. So I’m thinking about offering the dances, once a quarter at this point, till I get my leadership certification, and then it will be once a month.

Daily: What do you need to go through to become a leader of the dances?

Schiller: The training varies, but pretty much we have to do a certain number of dances, and we have to do dances that are representative of different spiritual traditions. They especially concentrate on dances that are not in the person’s own language. You really get an understanding of what’s the dance all about. We call it attuning to the dance. It’s almost like walking in the footsteps of the people who preceded you.

Daily: So how many dances do you need to learn?

Schiller: There’s a minimum of 20 dances from six to eight spiritual traditions. It’s a lot, but once you start doing it … you kind of get into the rhythm of the dances and you pick them up easily. And they’re very simple circle dances … Most dances are four lines long, and they repeat it many, many times so that learning is usually quick and easy, within 10 minutes. That’s the nice thing about these dances. It’s not about performance dancing, it’s participatory … And they are celebrated all over the world.

Daily: So what’s the thing that keeps you dancing all these years?

Schiller: The thing that keeps me going is that it celebrates different cultural traditions. It plays out the similarity among us instead of the differences. That, I love so much.

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