Twenty or so people sway across the room like a square dance gone weird. They move carefully to odd, beautiful music, passing from partner to partner, clasping each other's hands and staring into each other's eyes and singing in ancient languages.
Some have never met, and the abrupt closeness is uncomfortable. Others are devotees who take to the dance with fervor. In this rented room, where Sheetrock walls have yet to be painted, it is religion.
The Dances of Universal Peace that these people do are derived from wild, mystical practices of the Islamic Sufis, who seek a union with God by chanting and whirling about. In Los Angeles, thousands of miles to the West, they are the centerpiece for a restrained version of the Eastern religion and philosophy.
And presiding over this particular celebration is the Rev. Tasnim Hermila Fernandez, a 40-year-old Burbank secretary who is one of a dozen Southern Californians ordained as ministers in the Sufi Order of the West.
"This isn't mumbo-jumbo or hocus-pocus and I'm not channeling anything," Fernandez said. "This is the most accessible religion around. You don't have to be dunked under water or walk on hot coals or pay $300."
No Temples, Shrines
The Western Sufis number perhaps several hundred in California, according to Fernandez. They have no temples or shrines and must practice their religion in homes and rented halls. Members are asked to donate $5 or so to attend an evening of dancing. There are also weekly formal services for meditation, breathing exercises and the reading of scripture.
Among those who worship with Fernandez are doctors, artists and teachers.
"You look at these people and they all look a little strange, but that's just in your mind," said Howie Ross, a 35-year-old magazine writer. "I try to get past that. They are really good people who have a lot of love."
In its original form, Sufism is a mystical side of Islam shunned by orthodox Muslims. The Sufi Order of the West was created near the turn of the century by an Indian named Hazrat Inayat Khan. It is a milder religion with dogma pared away, leaving mostly the celebration of music and dance. Scripture is limited to choosing phrases and writings from anything and everything--the Koran or the Old Testament or whatever a Sufi minister thinks best fits a certain moment or message.
Fernandez ministers her members in a patient, often humorous manner. She talks of Sufi philosophy with a kind of excitement, like someone telling a favorite story or joke.
Bits, Pieces of Wisdom
Born in Mexico City and raised in Texas and California, Fernandez said she turned to Sufism because it did not claim any superiority or exclusivity. She said she liked the way the Western Sufis took bits and pieces of wisdom from all religions.
In her religious work--which she says takes up all the time left over from a 40-hour work week--Fernandez is as likely to tell a troubled member to seek psychiatric help as she is to find an answer in scriptures or chanting a mantram (commonly called a mantra), a hymn or portion of text intoned as an incantation or prayer.
"A mantram won't get you anywhere if you're still hung up on hating your father."
And she avoids presenting the religion as a cure-all.
"Then you sound like you're talking about your guru or your new boyfriend, about how they are so perfect and so wonderful," she said.
What is left, and what most people turn to when describing Sufism, is the dancing.
On a recent Sunday evening, the dancers came to a storefront yoga center in Los Angeles wearing no special clothes or religious symbols. There were guitarists and flutists and women who beat drums. The songs had lilting melodies and the dances were intricate and rhythmic.
"The dance part, that's what I like most," said Kara Bennett, 44, a West Hollywood writer who was dancing with the Sufis for the first time. "It's a chance for people who don't even know each other to do something that is simple and warm."
Said Jeff Trosper of North Hollywood, a 40-year-old artist who has been dancing for a year and goes by the name Salik among his fellow Sufis: "It's more interesting than just reading scripture."
Chanting is an essential part of the dancing. The music culls phrases from religions and cultures that range from Judaism to Catholicism to the American Indian.
During one dance, the group will sing a Hindu mantram like Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai-Jai Ram and, in the next dance, they will chant in English: "All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you."
Fernandez tells the dancers: "It can either sound like a bunch of words . . . and that's what they are, I can't deny it . . . or you can have an inkling of what these words shadow."
Neither Fernandez nor the most experienced of her congregation can come up with a clear explanation of how this dancing and chanting affects them. Fernandez wrote in a publication called L. A. Resources Forum, ". . . we learn to move together. How thrilling it is to experience the perfect timing of any activity performed by two or more people who move as one! In some dances, we share great joy and exhilaration; in others, a deep sense of purity. . . . In every dance, through the combined efforts of sound, concentration, movement and breath, an atmosphere is created."
After struggling for such words, Fernandez and others say the dancing is just a different form of prayer. It is, they say, something that brings pleasure and peace. Again, no one will tell you that they have found the way to God.
As Fernandez is wont to say when expounding on some aspect of Sufi philosophy:
"It may be true. What do I know?"