Spiritual Songs and Chants of James Burgess
Entertainer, Teacher, Priest
What is our purpose as dance leaders?
Dances of Universal Peace are employed to achieve a number of quite different outcomes so it is worthwhile to acknowledge this and to focus more keenly on what we may see as our own particular intention as leaders. Indeed this intention may change over time and from time to time so the questions may be subtler than we may at first perceive.
The dances have been used for these and other purposes:
Our choice of what dances to offer will reflect the purpose we have and how to achieve that purpose, also where we are and when. A jolly vernacular partner dance is not always interchangeable with a profound zikr – almost never in fact – so how do we equip ourselves to decide what to present? Well, we can develop a repertoire that is broad enough to meet a range of circumstances and yet also is particular to our needs. We also hone our skills as leaders to meet a given situation – for example someone working with special needs children will be more likely to learn to let go of expectations and enjoy the process itself; one whose local group rarely exceeds six in number may not be concerned with how to make her guitar sound louder; another who works with prison inmates may be more interested in anticipating and circumventing outbreaks of violent abuse than whether the dancers hold hands (let alone in the manner prescribed).
As the heading suggests, one can divide the leader’s task into 3 archetypal roles: entertainer, teacher and priest. Is it controversial to admit that we are entertainers? Alas, the (western) world has become a place where consumers want and need to have their appetites fed and (perhaps unconsciously) prioritise their life choices in order to meet these requirements. Our dancers have needs – for social contact, for attention, for recognition and for distractions and entertainments. Even if we have no such intention, we nevertheless do entertain. We offer popular dances, we offer pleasure, we stimulate joyful feelings and ask for very little in return. So be it; perhaps we can accept that we have a certain social role as entertainers – and without the ability to entertain we would not be so likely to have a circle to teach…
… and what do we teach? Apart from the technical aspects of the dances: words, melody and movements – what else? Samuel Lewis did actually have the intention to “teach them to walk properly” and also to promote Hazrat Inayat Khan’s message of universality of worship that he so ably embodied. Most certain SAM had a clear sense of passing on knowledge – and taught a range of dances that served his purpose. One can observe that SAM’s dances are never sentimental, often require a high degree of concentration and generally lift the dancers to an altered consciousness. Such cannot be said of all the dances in our repertoires. Is this OK? Perhaps it is since we have different purposes now, which purposes are indeed better served by dances more melodic, sometimes sentimental and often undemanding. Perhaps a dilution has taken place - due to the spreading out - and this is to be acceptable as inevitable and possibly efficacious. Whatever; let the dances carry our teachings! Our teachings, not SAM’s and not our mentor’s. We have to take full responsibility for what we are teaching.
If it shocks us a little to be confronted with the fact that we are the teachers and ours are teachings, then there may be an even greater discomfort felt when we affirm that we are priests/priestesses too. We have a sacred duty and privilege to be an agency through which our dancers are empowered to reach out their hearts in yearning for God. Without us, perhaps they may not have the courage, the clarity, the energy, the knowledge how to do so. Wouldn’t we willingly risk suffering abuse from those who question our methods in order to help just one person take one step closer to the Beloved?
All in all we have surely to acknowledge that we are far more than Sufi Sam’s spiritual grandchildren, trying so hard to master the legacy of his teachings. We, ourselves, are ancestors to those who follow us and have to claim our own spiritual authority in the same way Samuel Lewis had to, so that we can further the work in our own way - our own way - in our own field of interest and location. The time has come for the thousands and tens of thousands metaphorically to put on their priestly robes and speak of God without the straitjacket of religious dogma or the abuses of hierarchy interfering with the existential privilege/duty each of us has to represent the unfolding of Divine wisdom.