When the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey dance, nobody applauds. It's not that audiences are unappreciative. On the contrary, the dervishes–from the Istanbul-based Mevlevi Order of Sufis–regularly sell out theatres across Europe. But the gyrating figures, with their tall brimless hats and white skirts, are not putting on a performance. They're participating in an ancient religious ritual that puts them into a trance and unites them with Allah.
"There's no real preparation before the Sema, as we call the ritual–the dancers are always ready, because it's a way of life," says Cenk Erdem, spokesman and translator for the troupe, reached in New York, where the Whirling Dervishes are beginning a North American tour that will include a visit to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (November 24). "They get into the trance, and as they spin they keep repeating the name of the creator, to be mindful. As the world turns, they whirl."
The Mevlevi Order was founded in the late 13th century, and named after the mystic and poet Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi–who ended one of his poems with the prophetic line: "dazed by the marvels of love, our whirling endures." His followers continue to perform the ritual that he established.
Participants make precise movements with their hands while turning, and every posture and gesture is symbolic. Their right hand is turned upward to receive Allah's grace, while the left is turned down to convey that grace to earth.
"And they never move the left foot," Erdem says. "It helps to ground the dancer, and is a part of the technique to keep from becoming dizzy, but it also has meaning: the left foot crushes the ego. If you leave your ego and open your heart to all people, and if you seek the truth inside you, you will find the love of God. It means we are not slaves of our desires."
Their devotions are usually accompanied by music, and when the Whirling Dervishes come to Vancouver, the five dancers (plus one dance master) will be joined by three vocalists and a five-piece ensemble. The musicians will perform an opening set, and the evening also features a presentation on Rumi's life, as well as an appearance by Esin Celebi, the great poet's 22nd-generation descendant.
"Westerners really love the message of Rumi, because they see that he doesn't discriminate among people," Erdem says. "There's a famous saying of his that says, 'Come–whoever you are.' It means openness and vision. Whether we are wrongdoers or believers, we all come from the spiritual world, we can join the spiritual. We are invited to leave our egos. Rumi talks about this. There is a soul within your soul. Seek that hidden jewel. Investigate within."