Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In a Whirl of Color!

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

The Tanoura Dance Troupe performed this week as they do every week, at the picturesque Al-Ghouri Mousoleum near Khan el Kalili bazaar. They perform twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and the admission is free! So it's hard to be disappointed since the experience is bewitchingly amazing.

The practice of Tanoura or Sufi whirling is a type of meditation that originated among Sufis over 700 years ago. The word "Tanoura" may refer to the dance, dancer, or the large skirt used in the performance.

Sufism is the spiritual tradition known to many Westerners through the mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical tradition dating back two millennia. It is generally understood to be the mystical dimension of Islam, and the practitioner of this tradition is known as Sufi or "Dervish." The word is Persian in origin and literally means "the sill of the door", but it is used by the Arabic and Turkish language to describe the Sufi, who is the one who is at the door to enlightenment.

Sufi Masters have developed a variety of practices to induce mystical states of consciousness. Jalaluddin Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi and founder of the Mevlana Order, developed the ritual dance which consisted mostly of turning in place or spinning around a central point or pillar.

Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, "All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!"

The Egyptian Sufi dancing is different to the Mevlana Dervishes in Turkey. It is more colourful and with more people involved in the performance. The concept is built around the idea that the universe stems from the same point of rotation. Starting and ending at the same point, represented by the senior dancer, "Lafife" and symbolizes the Sun, while the junior dancers "Hanatia" are the constellation revolving around him. The whirling motion itself reflects the importance of circles in Sufi philosophy and cosmology, within which revolution is the fundamental state of all beings. The aim during this ritual is to desert "the nafs" or ego (or personal desires) and listening to their master and Sufi music, thinking about God and whirling on a spiritual journey to reach the "Kemal" (the perfect).

"For a dervish, there must be a purpose, a cause for existence, and inside the cause, a True Human Being." Jelaluddin Rumi

The musical instruments used include rebaba (folk fiddle), ney (flute), mizmar (shawm), frame drums, sagat (cymbals), and tabla (doumbek drum). In the Sufi tradition the ney holds great significance as air has to be breathed in and out rather than blown into it, and that the wind passing through the flute is not just the breath of the player but the breath of God. So once the breath enters the journeyer (the dancer), he seeks union with God through the whirling movements. There is also the chanting of "thikr", which is the repletion of "la illaha illa'llah" (there is no god but God). However, some Dervish may only repeat "Allah" because they believe man can die at any moment, and they want only the name of God on their lips and in their hearts.

The changes in music, body language, and facial expressions are intended to communicate. The tannoura contained a cohesive message, communicated sequentially over the course of the show. The dancers whirl continuously sometimes for up to 45 minutes straight, varying their pace to match the music, then stop and be completely fine. As they turn, they manipulate long skirts in a colorful display and executing skilled moves, such as throwing the skirts in the air, spinning the skirts at different levels and angles, even spinning the skirt over head and while lying down. When the dancer tilts at an angle where the right hand is raised up and the left almost touches the ground, it signifies a union of the heaven and earth.

It is a rare occurrence of religious ceremony transcending into performing art. But it is obviously more entertainment than religious ceremony. It is also claimed that the trance-like state that the Dervish goes into extends to the observing audience, so don't feel surprised if you find yourself transfixed watching these well trained performers on their spiritual journey!