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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Whirl Like a Dervish

By Arabella

 

There's something intriguing about the idea of a whirling dervish. So much so that the expression has fallen into common usage - as in "She blitzed through the store like a whirling dervish" - with the original meaning forgotten for the most part. Perhaps we like the phrase because of its alliterative quality, or maybe it's because the word "dervish" sounds rather like "devilish".

 

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How Did Whirling Dervishes Get Started?

But what is a dervish, and why do they whirl? The word "dervish" comes from the Persian "darvish", meaning a poor man. (In fact, in Toronto there is an Iranian restaurant called "Darvish" and its logo is a man carrying a hobo stick.) The whirling dervishes are one of various brotherhoods of Sufis. Since the early days of Islam, some Muslims have attempted to get as close to God as possible. Some deprived themselves of food or sleep in an attempt to leave the everyday world behind. They came to be called Sufis because they wore a rough woolen robe: "soof" is Arabic for "wool". Various brotherhoods were established, each following the teachings or example of a Sufi master with their own special way of reaching towards God: some chant, some breathe rhythmically, others dance. The most famous are the Mevlevi dervishes, who whirl.

The most famous Sufi master is Celaleddin Rumi. He was born in east Persia - in what is now Afghanistan - in 1207, and was brought to Konya, Turkey, by his family when he was a child. Rumi was a philosopher who is remembered today for his exquisitely beautiful devotional poetry. But he also "discovered" whirling as a means of communing with God. How did that happen?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photograph by Julie Anne Elliot, taken in a Mevlevi exhibition show near Konya, Turkey, in July, 2000.

Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey

One day, overcome with grief by the loss of a dear friend, he was wandering the streets of Konya where he became engaged by the rhythmic beat of a goldsmith's hammer, and began whirling. He founded the Whirling Dervishes or Mevlevis (the name coming from Rumi's title "mevlana", meaning "our master"). They practice a fast form of rotation - its purpose is to induce a religious trance - so that "wherever you turn you see the face of God."It's still done in Konya, partly as a tourist spectacle; practitioners also travel and perform extensively, introducing more of the world to their art.

 

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Bringing Whirling Into Your Own Life

Maybe you whirled when you were a child, just because it felt good, or because you liked the dizzy sensation once you stopped. But is it possible to whirl for a long time - say more than ten minutes - without suffering vertigo? And is it really possible to experience elation? The answer to both questions is yes!

Start with a warm-up exercise. Close your eyes, and with arms at your side, turn slowly in whichever direction feels more natural. When you feel comfortable, try rotating your head. Do this for a minute or so, then try it in the other direction. Now you're ready to try whirling.

If turning clockwise felt more natural, then stretch your right arm in front of your body, with your hand outstretched and roughly in front of your heart. Extend your left arm up toward heaven. Fix your gaze on your front hand, and begin turning slowly. This concept of focusing the gaze on a stationary object is similar to the idea of gazing at the horizon if you have motion-sickness. Now you can whirl as long as it pleases you. If you should start to feel a bit dizzy, just slow down. To come out of the whirl, slow down gradually, then spend a few quiet moments either standing still, or sitting or lying on the floor.

Experiment! You may find it easier to pivot on the heel rather than the ball of the foot. Try rotating your head as before, perhaps in the same direction as you're spinning, perhaps not. You can also try reversing your gaze from your hand, or even closing your eyes. But be careful! Traditionally, turning clockwise has an outward-flowing feeling, a sensation of "yang", while counter-clockwise spinning has a "yin" flavor, one of inward-channeling. It's helpful to use music; this will aid in regulating your turning. Something that's dreamy and/or new-age, that builds up gradually, would work well.

As you practice whirling, perhaps you will experience ecstasy, as I have on occasion. I have never experienced anything like it: I felt my spirit soaring toward heaven, yet at the same time, I felt completely grounded because my feet were constantly in contact with the floor. I was in such a wonderful place that I was able to move my head or arms in whatever manner pleased me, with no adverse effects. The music ended all too quickly! If you're looking for a similar experience, why not give this... a whirl?

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About the Author

Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:

  • Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
  • Costume ideas
  • Essays and opinion pieces
  • Understanding Middle Eastern music
  • Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography

Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.

Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.

Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.

Photo of Arabella

 

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