The Mevlevi order of Whirling Dervishes in Turkey are perhaps the most recognizable expression of Sufi mystical dance around the world. In white robes and conical hats, representative of burial shrouds and symbolizing the death of the ego, the (mostly male) dervishes perform a whirling movement practice called sama (meaning “to listen”) in order to purify the heart and merge into a state of divine ecstatic union with the Beloved.
The highly ritualized transcendental circle movement meditation of the dervishes is in sacred harmony with natural life forces, including the movement of atoms around the nucleus and the spiraling whirl of the galaxy.
With the circle as symbolic of divine unity and wholeness, and the spiral an ancient archetypal symbol of transformation, the dervishes rotate like planets around the sun while turning on their axis, as the earth turns, inward towards the heart.
In this way they become the axis mundi; the umbilical cord of spiritual nourishment, point of contact between heaven and earth, and portal between the seen and unseen worlds. And much as certain compounds separate through a process of rotation, there is a spiraling out of “heavier” elements in order to purify the heart, the predominate chakra in sufi practice, for it is through the heart that Divine Light channels through us and out into the world.
This spiritual truth is symbolized in the upturned right hand of the dervish that receives celestial energy and transmits it into the earth through the downturned left hand.
Though sama in this form is credited to the 13th century spiritual founder of the Mevlevi order, Persian mystic and poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī (Rumi), the practice of whirling predates Sufism altogether and was once the purview of women. Throughout medieval Persia and Central Asia a dance called the Sogdiana Whirl was popular along the Silk Road and it is possible Rumi encountered these dancers as a child in Balkh (present-day Afghanistan).
These Central Asian whirling dancers from Sogdiana were “all the rage”, especially in the courts of China’s Tang Dynasty, where the dance was one of many exotic western cultural imports that made their way east.
However, further research by shamanic women’s specialist Max Dashu and earlier religious historian Mircea Eliade reveal that whirling in China goes back much further than as trendy medieval court entertainment. Rather, the whirling dancers of the courts were perhaps a vestige of archaic spiritual practices that had long died out.
According to ancient Chinese texts and visual imagery left on pottery and other artifacts, we know that female shamans called Wu of ancient China performed ecstatic whirling dances and “spoke the language of spirits, and around them objects rose it the air and knocked together.”
The Wu chanted and whirled with flowing sleeves, wielded snakes, performed invocations, divinations, healing rituals, and drove off evil spirits through their ecstatic dances. The Wu prepared herself to channel with purifying perfumed water, ceremonial robes, and offerings. Then, “with a flower in her hand, she mimed her journey by a dance accompanied by music and songs, to the sound of drums and flutes, until she fell exhausted.” [Eliade]
By the Zhou dynasty (around 1000 BCE) shamans, especially female shamans, were persecuted as society turned increasingly militaristic and new male-dominated power structures were put in place. Though stripped of spiritual authority, the dances of the Wu still fulfilled a ritualized ceremonial function within the royal court, at least for a time, in the form of the classical music and dance tradition called yayue.
It is not unusual for authentic mystical realities to become ritualized into a symbolic structure that still maintains meaning through the encoded wisdom of the practice. That is, in fact, the role of art in its highest form.
Over time, however, the associated practices and images may be appropriated by other groups with a power agenda, given diminished status as entertainment (if not out-right banned), or become so abstract that the connection is lost and one participates in the activity without conscious awareness of its sacred intent.
This tendency is true of both dance and religion, which were once intimately linked and experienced as an integrated whole. My intention is to help reignite that ancient connection through my work as an artist and teacher, and I invite you to be a part of the process.
Would you like to experience whirling in a beautiful sacred space in Tiburon CA with a view of the San Francisco Bay this coming weekend? We still have a couple spots left in “Shake, Spin, Sway: An Experiential Weekend of Women’s Dance Ritual“, and your presence at this gathering is warmly welcomed. No experience needed.
If you can’t commit to the April 1-2 workshop at this time, please join us Friday night, March 31 for our opening gathering “Movement of the Spheres” where I will present a whirling dance, along with a suite of Moroccan dances and other surprises. Come let the ancient rhythms of the music transport you, the whirls and undulations lift your spirit, and feel the support and empowerment that community brings.
Here are the details:
Movement of the Spheres
An evening of dance performance and ritual with Hannah Romanowsky
Facebook invite: Movement of the Spheres: An Evening of Dance and Ritual
Doors open at 7pm. Show begins at 7:30.
$25 (Free for weekend workshop participants. Click here for more info)
Group discount: $100 for 5 tickets
Location: Community Congregational Church of Tiburon
145 Rock Hill Dr, Tiburon, CA 94920