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Meditation in Motion or Spectacular Show?

Author turning

by Nicole McLaren
photos by Patrick Gutenberg
posted January 11, 2013

Whirling dance is popular in Egypt! However, on the big stages in Europe, it is still rarely seen. It is a fascinating dance, one-of-a-kind, and full of contradictions; it lingers between meditation in motion and a spectacular show about the dervishes of Turkey and the Tanoura dancers of Egypt–about dizziness, LED lights and tanouras (skirts) that are on fire.

A dance could not be any more contradictory. The Whirling dance lingers between spectacular showmanship and meditation in motion; it combines trance and technique. It is a surprising paradox, unified like lovers within the dance. This one-of-a-kind fusion is the reason why, as a performing art, the stage variation of the old Turkish whirling rite inherits a special place within the Oriental dance styles.

In general, turns bear something original, something genuine, something archaic. Kids spin playfully around their axes until they fall to the floor, giggling. They enjoy the sensual experience of a temporary loss of orientation. In physics, mathematics, literature or philosophy, turns, circular concepts, wheels, and cycles are omnipresent in many sciences and art forms. Especially in dance, first and foremost in ballet or ice skating, repetitive turns belong to the fundamental movement repertoire. Yet, dances of all sorts celebrate the great aesthetics of the turn in all its grandeur. Is there a dance style existent that knows no turns at all?

A Dervish whirls for hours

The spinning of the whirling dervishes of Konya, Turkey, rose to worldwide popularity. It is an integral part of their religious ceremony “Sema“, (which means listening or listening within). During this rite they turn, sometimes for hours, around their own axes, and while the Dervishes whirl, their  awareness focuses inward. The trance like effect that constant whirring may cause, brings the Dervishes (or Sufis, according to Sufism, the mystical movement within Islam) in religious ecstasy closer to Allah.

Sufis strive for a mystical experience of the divine: the Unio Mystica, a union with the divine, a state of oneness with God. One of the key concepts of the Sufism doctrine is: everything is; we all are part of the great whole. The dervishes of Konya experience this belief within the whirling rite.  

"Come, come, whoever you are."

Also in the case of an audience present, for the Sufis, whirling is less an outer performance than the sharing of a mutual experience. They consider the audience as true participators of the ceremony. Therefore, the spectators should not clap at the end of the rite. Hereby they would state that they do not belong to the ceremony, but are mere outsiders watching the whirlers as they perform. Consequently, this would represent a dualistic vantage which goes against the Sufistic credo of everything being part of a greater entity.

Throughout the centuries, Sufis sometimes faced repression because of their beliefs. Some considered their way of life and religious approaches as inadequate; for example, music being played during religious ceremonies was considered a worldly approach. The great Persian Sufi poet, Rumi, to whom the order of the Whirling Dervishes traces back, sparked additional resentment by his famous quote: “Come, come, whoever you are.“ Opponents considered these words as heretical because they could be interpreted as showing a tolerance to other religions.

In 1925, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey, wanted to modernize his country and model it into a more western oriented state. Consequently, he made all Islamic brotherhoods illegal, including the Mevlevi order (the Whirling Dervishes). This order is still illegal, even though in 1954, the practice was partially allowed once again; the whirling ceremony turned out to be lucrative because it allured innumerable tourists.

Rumi Inspired Goethe and Madonna

Rumi, who lived in Turkey from 1207 to 1273 A.D., initiated the whirling rite that the Sufis of the Mevlevi order still practice.

It is said that Rumi once wandered over to a market in Konya, and heard the beating of a hammersmith. Within, he thought he heard the words “La ilaha illa-llah“, one of the most important Sures in the Quran. Deeply moved, he spread out his arms and started whirling.

Rumi left behind a huge heritage also concerning other fields: as a poet he created a great lyrical opus in his Persian mother tongue, beyond it “The Great Divan“. His poetry affected people worldwide, and throughout the centuries. Rumi inspired the great German writer, Goethe, who wrote “West-Eastern Diwan“. UNESCO honoured Rumi in 2007 on the occasion of his 800th birthday, and pop singer Madonna used Rumi’s lyrics in her song “Bittersweet“ in 1998. The Turkish musician, Mercan Dede, named his first album “Sufi Dreams“, the one of 2009 “800“; he called it his birthday cake for Rumi.

The Dance with the Tanoura

Whirling dance for the stage is not to be confused with the religious whirling rite of the Dervishes. Some Sufis feel offended if they are called “dancers“. For them, whirling is religious meditation. On the contrary, a dancer on stage performs in order to please an audience. Therefore, one may avoid the incorrect term “Derwish dancer“ when referencing the stylized stage variation.

The Egyptians adapted the whirling technique of the Dervishes in Turkey, and it grew into a one-of-a-kind stage artform. The extremely popular dance with the tanoura (the Arabic term meaning skirt) is a performance for an audience; the whirlers usually don’t belong to a Sufi order. Also, the tanoura underlines the show aspect: a full-circle skirt, often made of a highly colorful fabric. Sewed into the rim is a hemp rope, rubber, or a chain. So, the skirt will unfold with whirling, thanks to centrifugal force, it will hover like a plate. Often, the tanoura is multilayered, and sometimes the dancers wear multiple colorful tanouras simultaneously. Highly skilled and popular tanoura artists of today, include names like Ziya Azazi from Turkey and Austria or Bondok from Egypt and Germany.

Embrace dizziness; release control

The music for the Whirling dance on stage is sometimes inspired by the Sufi music, and creates a mesmerizing atmosphere. The rhythm which is often used is the 2/4 Rhythm of Ayub or a Zaar rhythm (Dum – Tak Dum Tak). Often a ney (a reed flute), one of the central instruments in Sufi music, is used. They say that its soulful and melancholic tone portrays the flute’s great sorrow of having been cut out of the reed from which it came, as well as its deep longing of being unified again with its origin. This metaphor of striving for a reconnection expresses beautifully the Sufistic idea of everything being part of a greater whole.

Paradoxically, for the Whirling dance, it is extremely important to consciously release control. The dancer strives for a dedication to the whirling experience, and the sensual effect that accompanies it; a temporary disorientation–a sensation of letting go, of letting loose.

This is a challenge, physically, as well as mentally because dancers, in particular, try to achieve the greatest body control possible on the one hand, while on the other, the constant and repetitive whirling movement is new to them and might somehow feel odd for the body. Consequently, some dancers might get dizzy in the beginning while others won’t feel anything at all. If someone experiences dizziness, rather than fighting it, embracing it will help to overcome. Ultimately, once the feeling of a possible initial discomfort is left behind, the whirling experience may bless the dancer with an overwhelmingly intense awareness of the moment–a simultaneous sensation of great calm and euphoric joy.

Whirling with a Burning Tanoura

Initially, one might think a whirling choreography for the stage wouldn’t be complex, but rather, plain and simple. A differentiated view unfolds a great variety of possibilities, though. The dancer can combine calm and meditative elements with spectacular show moves using the tanoura. Besides using torso and hips, smooth and fluent arm moves, and wild head turns, there are different whirling techniques such as: jumping, skipping, hopping on one leg. They may skillfully integrate the whole space of the stage, whirling fast and slow, dynamically and steadily. Additionally,one may use black light or LED lights sewn directly into the tanoura. Of course, nearly endless possibilities of props, can be combined creatively with the tanoura: drums, veils, zills, swords, Isis wings, Tibetan sleeves or Chinese ribbons.

Furthermore, the tanoura presents a wide array of possibilities: The so-called wheel, either at hip, shoulder, or over-head height, evokes wowing effects. In order to create it, the dancer holds the tanoura in a certain way so the skirt will hover diagonally around her. Moreover, the dancer can take off the tanoura, fold it into the popular “baby“, use it as a cape, whirl it around single handedly, throw it high into the air, and let it waft down onto her. Additionally, she may light the rim of a special pyro-tanoura, and spectacularly, whirl in a ring of fire. Using all these possibilities–and with a playful “jester’s license“ state of mind–many more possibilities are yet to be explored. A dedicated dancer can choreograph outstandingly creative performances. The stage is beckoning!

Whirling within a Dance Routine

Within the Oriental dance scene, whirling dance has not yet become a mass phenomenon, although the ability of spinning around one’s own axis, vastly enhances the skills of an Oriental dancer and ameliorates one’s repertoire. A dancer who masters a constant whirl will seamlessly, (and seemingly effortless) cope with a lot of fast, consecutive spins, which are very popular in the great finale of a classical dance routine.

The deep aesthetics of the whirling movement only unfolds its full beauty if the dancer is able to completely devote herself to these turns: grounded, centered, with a strong inner axis and an upright composure.

Besides the refinement of the dancing skills, whirling dance also broadens the spectrum of styles within a show, and enriches its diversity. On many big stages, the whirling dance is still rarely seen; hence, the effects of the danced turns unroll all the more.

A Paradox, Unified within the Dance

Within the Oriental dance styles, the Whirling dance is often accredited to having a certain, exceptional position. Although the stage variation has progressed a long way from its ceremonial Sufi origins, whirling still blends performance and meditation, skills, and spirit. The dancer may find (somewhat contradictorily) great calmness within the movement.

Generally, the Whirling dance combines an enthralling set of oppositions. It is a spectacular stage dance, but at the same time often focuses inward, striving for immersion and self-absorption. It creates a deep deliberation, and while the body is  in full motion, it bears simultaneously meditative calmness and rousing joy of life. Its ambiance harmoniously meanders and can be playful and strong,or sublime and solemn. It raises the awareness of the moment, while the whirler journeys to the core of himself.

For a dancer, whirling is an exceedingly sensual experience; intense, delightful, and even trancelike. For the audience, though, the one-of-a-kind mystic atmosphere, the forceful energy, and at the same time, hypnotizing inwardness, mesmerizes the spectators. This unique art of dance lingers between control and letting go, between trance and technique. It seems to touch the invisible, a dance that has the power to enchant–like a secret from another world.


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  1. Clare

    Oct 13, 2013 - 12:10:15

    Hi, Im a hoop dancer and practice sustained spinning with my hoops, using two hoops I make patterns around my body sometimes hooping on shoulders and one hoop in hand whilst contiuousl spinning in a left current this was before I saw a sufi ceremony in London and discovered they turn towards the left also.  I’ve just returned from Egypt and discovered the Tanoura shows out there and love them..I would really like to buy a tanoura skirt and wonder if there is anywhere that make them or would I have to make my own? Tanoura skirt and spinning hoops together will be wonderful!  Any ideas?

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