In Dizzying Disbelief: On Spinning, Turning and Whirling


Spot, turn, snap… spot, turn, snap… spot, turn, snap. These were the instructions that were repeated to me and the other 7 and 8 year olds in my ballet class as we attempted to pirouette from one corner of the dance studio to the other. Look at a spot on the wall, hold that spot while your body turns and then snap your head around. As my classmates and I staggered into the wall we would burst into giggles, and would then joyously run to the next corner to try again, all the while trying to regain our balance. There was something freeing – a sense of weightlessness- we felt while spinning across the room.

In adulthood, we sit in awe when we see a skilled ballerina, ice skater, or ballroom dancer spinning round and round. This admiration only grows as they come out of the spin and appear unaffected- able to continue dancing or skating in a straight line. While these athletes are incredibly impressive, I have to say, I think the most spell binding spinners are the Whirling Dervishes. What they do seems to define all logic and watching them whirl for what seems like forever, leads one to believe they are indeed connecting with some define force.

Those commonly referred to as the Whirling Dervishes, are members of the Mevlevi Order of Islamic Sufism. The Mevlevi originated in Turkey during the 13th Century through the art and teachings of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. The men, and at certain points women, that choose this path perform a mesmerizing dance known as the Sema, from which they have gotten the name, Whirling Dervishes. The dance, a ritual of religious devotion, includes four parts each representing the connection of the dancer to the earth and to God. The four stages include different numbers of dancers and different positioning, but in each part, the dancers continually turn on their left foot in a trance-like state.

The dancers wear a long white skirt and white jacket, which symbolizes the ego’s shroud. On their slightly tilted heads sits a tall camelhair hat that represents a tombstone for the ego. As the dervishes whirl, their arms are mostly held up, with one hand facing up and the other down. The right hand is open and facing God, and the left is turned downward to signify the granting of God’s gifts to the world. An over 700-year-old tradition, the Mevlevi Order were outlawed in the 1920s when Atatürk secularized the country. Yet, it became clear that the Sema was a tourist attraction, so legality aside, the tradition continues and flourishes. In fact, in 2008 the Sema was put on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Take a look and tell me you aren’t impressed… and perhaps a bit dizzy.