by Eva Cernik
Excerpts that appeared in Jareeda, Dancezine8 and on the International Dance Discovery website
The Whirling Dervish Dance is a dance of unity, a form of meditation. It first formally appeared in Turkey. It was done under the guidance of the famous and much loved Celaleddin Rumi, who was a poet, a religious and spiritual guide, and founded the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes after the death of his own spiritual master in 1247. The Mevlevi Dervishes practiced the Whirling Dance from Konya in central Turkey all the way through Syria and Egypt. Since 1925, under the reforms of Ataturk, attempting to secularize the country and progress into the 20th Century, these Dervish orders, seen as having too much influence in politics, social and economic life, were by law converted to religious brotherhoods and denoted as "cultural associations". Their Tekkes (houses for whirling and chanting) and monasteries were converted to museums. The dervishes were only allowed to whirl on special festival days such as December 17th, the annual festival of Mevlana in Konya, and on tour performing abroad. Nevertheless, we, as dancers, know well that one cannot perform a few times per year without continuous practice in the privacy of our homes or studios.
I was introduced to the Whirling Dance during my thirteen years of study and practice with a modern day Sufi master who was born and trained in Iraq. His contemporaries in the brotherhood may never approve of his teaching methods, made palatable to the all-American or European mind ... and that is how it came to be that I whirl on any occasion whenever I long for the effects of the whirling dance. In the Middle East, is is normally done with great ceremony and in the presence of a Sheikh. I have, however, with all due respect, stripped it of its context, and practice it in its pure essence (So is my belief). It is not a folk-dance to be presented for entertainment, as a Ghawazee Cane Dance or Turkish Karsilama Dance ... but it is done for the spiritual and corporeal benefit of all the participants, or sometimes as a gift for the onlookers. I have seen it performed for tourists in Cairo, often done with great flash. As is traditional, the dancer wears a very wide gored skirt with chain sewn into the hem. As the dancer begins to whirl, the skirt gains momentum and rises and undulates with a most spectacular and mesmerizing effect. The "Darveesh", not of the traditional brotherhood of Konya, hired to perform at a night club, festival, or cultural theatre in Cairo, often takes advantage of this effect by wearing two skirts. He unties the top layer and lifts it overhead as the momentum takes him. Indeed it is a sight to see. I have seen "Hassan Group" do it at Felfela village in Giza, at the Ramses Hilton Felafel Restaurant in Cairo, and on certain nights during Ramadan in a small theatre in old Cairo. The "Darveesh"sometimes holds brightly colored tambourines, six or seven at a time, and arranges them in different configurations as he whirls, each time extracting great applause.
One cannot but wonder whether these performing Dervishes practice seriously for their own spiritual alimentation, or whether, as many things in Egypt degrade and lose their original intent when the name of the game is survival, these dervishes could have been born into spiritual families and been handed down the knowledge. Or they could be born of Gypsies who may have both practiced the spiritual dance as well as found it to be good entertainment to earn money in their travels. I don't know ... but ten years ago I saw an older Darveesh whirling in a modest show on a boat on the Nile. I have seen him several times through the years, at street fairs and weddings, and most recently I have seen him very clean, his long hair cut, playing the tambourine in Fifi Abdou's band. Sometimes I wonder how much of the knowledges and sensitivity remains when I see the performing Darveesh (whirl) to the right ... when the master Celaddein Rumi always taught his disciples to whirl to the left.
I saw a saxophone player one time performing to the street in Madrid. He was an African, dressed in shorts with no shirt. He was a good musician and even created a Leslie Speaker effect, as he whirled endlessly as he played. He apparently whirled from some totally independent reason which he had discovered. He also whirled to the left.
Even though our "Oriental Dance" or "Belly Dance" seems at opposite poles to the whirling Dervish Dance, especially in the eyes of the traditional Muslim--in essence it is not. Both dances were originally done to embody aspects of Goddess/God essence and for unity with the reality. What other uses people have found for it does not detract from its ancient originals. Even Samia Gamal said to me once in an interview: "I agree that when we dance, we feel as if we are praying." She said that one reason she stopped performing was the the Oriental Dance in Cairo has been degraded for ever greater pay and fame ...
... I was invited to be guest dancer at the U.C.S.B. Mid-East Ensemble concert in Santa Barbara. As the great 45-piece student orchestra of Prof. Scott Marcus played through nearly three hours of music from an incredible Arabic repertoire, I waited in costume in the wings. My dance was last on the program and I waited anxiously. My muscles were stiffening and my nerves unpredictable. I tried to keep "warmed-up" and ready. A couple of songs before mine, they broke into a Sephardic piece which seemed to stir something in my memory. I could not help but submit to the will in my body. There in the wings of the theatre, I whirled through the length of the song, coming to a quiet gradual stop as the ney player removed his lips from his instrument. I was ready to perform ... every muscle in tune, my breath calm, my mind present and alert.
There were some very wordy yellow posters all about town--and I, driving my life in the fast lane then, had no time to read the entire content of the poster. The only word which caught my attention was "whirling."
"The man" didn't have a chance to capture me that way, so he came through the back door; he came to see me as a musician, as the drummer of my life. And soon--I was whirling, whirling, whirling ...
Now, you're whirling away at an even pace, all your chakras are lined up and open, your axis is steady--you've worked for years to arrive at this point--and surprise! but who should visit you at this time but the sneaking whisperer (1)--and whack! .... you clash appendages with neighboring whirlers, or you lose your step and crash to the floor. You realize that just when you were ego tripping on how well the whirling was going, was just when you were farthest gone on a walk with Waswas.
So you continue and continue. Your feet begin to move responsibly for you, your spine stretches upward continually as if up were down, every muscle in your neck, shoulders and arms is so relaxed that you are allowed to forget about them. With the slightest will, your right palm is upturned, and you are taken--you are whirled--your body temperature rises, you may touch your forehead and find it is wet, adrenalin is secreted within, and your mind is open, ready, willing, and able to receive reality (2). In this state, where thought occurs only in the form of pictures, is where you can do work.
Now, here are some stories of work I have done in this state.
...(I)t was on the floodplains of the Euphrates where I received a most genuine kiss. I'd been warned by Middle Eastern friends before departing America, that I should never find myself alone with a strange man. But this kiss was a reward for filling a most genuine want to be face to face again with "the Reality".
It happened that I was living in a most unpleasant situation, and working in a most unpleasant job--but I had come to see Baghdad, and I was going to see it in spite of the other lessons I was prescribed to learn here. I went alone to the souq. I stopped before enterting and looked at the dusty palm tree tops, at the dusty houses, at the huge dusty stork's nest constructed atop a slender tower--down around me there were dusty cars honking by, black and grey chadors and dishdashas swishing by and by. I searched for a clean place. I found that I was standing in front of a mosque which had a plaque that said it was a museum. It was locked. I went to the gate and clanged it. Soon the bawab (doorkeeper) came out and opened the gate. I motioned that I would like to look around, "O.K.?" He nodded, but kept pointing to his watch and ... told me that it was a museum until five, but then it would be a mosque for people to come in and pray. O.K., I promised that I would be out by five. I wandered among the pillars tiled in blue and white. He followed me around with a big book for me to sign, and I said "Later".
...I entered the prayer room and loved the silk and wool carpets under my bare feet, I loved the eight walls all around with tiles of Kor'anic verses, and I loved the sensation in the space.
The bawab appeared and took me by the wrist to the wall and pointed and explained all kinds of historical things. I smiled, was polite, but asked him to please leave me alone--all alone. He said that in twenty minutes the men would come to pray. I said: "O.K., 15 minutes I will be finished. Now, go away and don't come back until 15 minutes. Then I'll sign your book." He looked disappointed, but left.
My heart leaped to each of the eight walls, one by one, as it appeared over my left shoulder. One by one they flashed like a slide show--faster and faster until I released my hold on to paictures, I was whirled--I submitted to the blur of colors--all I saw was a close dome with my third eye as center. Motion was unidentifiable--like the spokes of a fast wheel that seems to be moving contrary to the direction. Whirling, whirling ... Soon I felt a presence in the room, a new band of color had appeared. I knew the bawab had not followed my directions. He was peeking into my microcosm, I was unveiled. I slowed down till the walls flashed again one by one in clear focus. I stopped, facing him, and he became shy for me. I went to his big book and wrote "Le Illaha Il Allah" and went for the gate. He was shaking as he followed me, and trembling as he opened the lock. Before I had a chance to go out, he held my face in his hands and kissed me with affection.
Another story of whirling:
On another late night ... I walked across the village of Vail in the Rocky Mountains, home from work to my cabin on the other side. In the cool of October I passed an empty ice-skating rink and saw that it had no ice yet. I entered the arena, placed my costumes on the railing, and turned my eyes to the skies; Es'Samawaati, the seven layers of heaven--filled with stars at all depths; that night I looked down no more. I began to whirl, unable to release my gaze at one of those solitary stars. I whirled and whirled, but since the star was not directly overhead, but was slightly below the zenith, my neck became a pivot point at which my axis was bent ... (and) that star danced for me! It moved dartingly in a pentagram pattern repetitively and rhythmically. All the other stars were still, as my moving vision blurred them into streaks, and in the center of this whirlpool was my star---dancing for me. The beauty bade me to ignore the cramp forming in my neck, until I could hold no longer. My eyes humbly lowered through the already lightening strata of stars until I could see the railing and the houses of the village.
I walked home in peace.
I have danced for many years--always been a dancer--it is a gift to me. It is the only thing that I was given in excess. You can only give that which you were given in excess--and I have given my dance generously. So generously at times, with disregard for the necessary medium of my dance--my body. My dance was taken away from me for a while, so that my body could repair itself. My body said: "I am your only bridge between your inner eye and your outer eyes of all about you. Respect me and don't burn me."
...Whirling is like no other medicine for me. It heals at all levels simultaneously ... the superficial, the emotional, the physical, and the subconscious ... correctively as well as preventatively. Whirling is a meditative skill that can only be learned with patience and dedication. Your whirling body can be both an indicator things gone wrong (and) an instrument for correct alignment.
It is a beautiful dance and most useful practice, used in ancient times, now, and for as long as there are bodies in space.
(1) The Sneaking Whisperer. This is a reference to the little voice in the negative self that always speaks for the ego, and encourages you to an easy, pleasure-filled irresponsible life. In the Kor'an it is referred to as "Waswas il Khanas", whisperer who sneaks. The whisper or destructive advice is referred to as Waswisu, whispering into the hearts of mankind ... of Ginn and man. From "Sura-t-al Nas", the Chapter of Mankind #114 of the Kor'an.
(2) The Reality. "Allah" is a translation from the Arabic of the word for God. Not a god, but "God". As it appears in stories, and in the Sufic belief, it is defined as "all that is". It can be separated into two parts: "Ah-Lah". It means bringing creation into bareness, and is invoked thusly: "Ah" inhale, "Lah" exhale.
(First published in _Jareeda_ , August 1993. Excerpts published electronically on the IDD Website.)
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