Quakers Make a Song and Dance

by Keith McDonald

from The West Australian Weekend Extra - March 4, 2006


Singing and dancing are activities perhaps not many people associate with Quakers, who worship mainly in silence.  But an American group in Perth last week showed that Quakers, also know as Friends, are not just strong, silent types.


The Friendly FolkDancers, on their first Australian tour, use dance to dismantle barriers between cultures and as founding member Mark Helpsmeet said: “I find that Quakers are the most singing and dancing of people I know.  We just don’t let that get in the way of God speaking to us.”


He was one of four Quakers from Wisconsin who formed the group as a spare-time venture in 1986.  Since then it has toured extensively in America and overseas and more than 60 have been involved in the group.


Mr Helpsmeet, a computer consultant, is the only remaining founder member and the six touring Australia include Melbourne teacher Meri Goad.  They spent two days in Perth giving two public shows and visiting schools.


“We are a peace witness, trying to get people to connect beyond their national borders, so we do dances from many different countries and we try to make peace between them,” Mr Helpsmeet explained.


They use a program of 16 dances to overcome political divides.  No Axis, Only Allies draws on dances from countries who were enemies in World War II and Shalom, Salaam, Peace brings together Arab and Israeli dances.


As their website explains: “While we have grown accustomed over the past 50 years to thinking of Arabs and Jews as enemies, these two Semitic peoples enjoyed centuries of peaceful coexistence before the recent era.”


Audience participation is the order of the day and after “warming up” with these dance sets, they do simpler dances when everyone takes part.


“We want to erase this line between the audience and the performer,” Mr Helpsmeet said.


“Our society has gone far too much in the direction of being spectators.  Originally with folk dancing the whole village would dance, and we are just expanding the village to include the entire globe.”


It may sound like an Australian bush dance but it is more meditative.


“Our concluding dance, for most people, is a very powerful experience of sending out a prayer in widening circles around the world,” Mr Helpsmeet said.  “There are three concentric circles and we sing a song, the words to which are, ‘What a grand and glorious feeling, glorious feeling, when the bells of peace are pealing, peace are pealing, peace on earth, peace on earth, peace on earth’.”


“And we have very simple motions that go with that.  It is sung in a round so all three of the circles are doing something different.”


He likens the group’s dances to prayer.  “It’s a chance to pray with our entire body,” he said.  “Far too many groups only pray with their lips and then they don’t live it out, they don’t let their lives speak.”


“In this case, when we do a dance from a country that’s far across the world, a place maybe we have never been, we are physically demonstrating our friendship with those people.  So the very act of doing that dance speaks very loudly and it starts connecting us, creating heart and spirit connections across continents.”


Mr Helpsmeet recalled how the leader of a kung-fu class once attended a show and afterwards said it was just the sort of spiritual underpinning he needed to anchor his practice of the martial art.


He also remembered having some trepidation about touring Kenya because the local Quakers were descended from an evangelical Quaker tradition that historically opposes dance as “too creaturely”.  Although Kenyan Quaker women sponsored the tour, the men sat on the edge at shows checking it out.


“Afterwards we received a comment from one of the elders of the Kenyan meetings saying that he recognized this as an important Christian witness.  He could recognize this as a Christian action, even though we never used the word ‘Christ’ … we spoke the peace and unity in a way that he recognized.”


While extolling the virtues of dance, however, Mr Helpsmeet drew a distinction between folk dancing and other dance forms.


“Folk dancing involves a circle or a line of people; it involves a community coming together.  So it does something that just dancing in couples does not do.  It gives you a connection to a centre of a community instead of just individuals.”


And unlike TV’s popular Dancing with the Stars, there is no judgment and you don’t have to be a good dancer.


“We don’t require perfection, in fact we don’t even allow it,” Mr Helpsmeet laughed.  “We want people to come into that circle knowing that it’s not about perfection.  It’s about sharing joy and community.”