Sufism is a form of Islam that celebrates mysticism. Through meditative dance, Sufis connect to Allah in a pure and true way. Traditionally this type of dancing is done within private Sufi dens because the outward appearance of the dance is less important than the spiritual feelings it evokes within the dancer as he dances for Allah alone. However the beauty of Sufi dancing has not gone unnoticed. Recently groups of Sufi dancers have opened up this ritual to audiences of curious observers so they can better understand this tradition within Sufism. A group of us from T.I.M.E. went last night to the historic Khan el Khalili to see one such performance.
For how important dance is in Sufi mysticism the music plays an equally important part. The musicians in the show were also the dancers but the first piece in the show highlighted their talents as drummers and cymbal players. With a rhythm that you feel in your soul a group of men clad in all white played to an enthusiastic crowd the music that inspires people to dance with their faces to the sky. Drummers took turns sharing solos with the crowd while the other musicians worked off their rhythms in a very organic almost improvisational way. I could have listened to an entire concert of just the music, but when the dancers began to move in the second piece it was incredible.
The individual dancer is not as important as the group as a collective which is made clear by the majority of the movement being done in unison and the identical costumes each man wore. They moved in a circular pattern around the stage with exacting precision in their feet while their arms hit poses lackadaisically in the air. A man in three tiered skirts who began to spin slowing in the center of the circle joined the men in white. With total inward focus the man spun and spun until his skirts spread out in a ring around him. Faster and faster he moved until the colors of the skirt blurred and blended adding to the entrancing nature of his movement. The men in white continued in their own pattern as the music continued to build in tempo and volume while the solo spinning man continued, seemingly unaware of the intensifying energy all around him.
The men in white fell out of unison and began to add their own additions to the patterned movement, allowing themselves to be individually inspired by the music. Deeper and deeper they each delved into their movement quality while touching their hearts and then looking and pointing to the sky. They danced for Allah; they danced, feeling the presence of the divine. The sincerity of the movement was intoxicating. I found it increasingly difficult to sit still, wanting to move to the music like the dancers on stage. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the dance ended. The man in the center slowing came out of his spinning and the men in white returned to their uniform line. A half an hour had pasted had I hadn’t even noticed.
After having learned about Sufism in Morocco, which has become very popular there, it was really amazing to see the dancing that is so much apart of that religious tradition. Watching the show I felt so connected to the dancers as they embodied their faith in front of me. It was beautiful and invigorating. An amazing experience I am glad we had during our time in the Middle East.
Although this type of dancing was new to those in our group who saw the show, it sparked something in all of us. That, to me, really speaks to the unity of human existence. We have all at one time in our lives felt the need to dance. The need for self expression is universal, and by taking the time to learn about and appreciate the different ways in which people present that expression we are able to connect the world in a beautiful and profound way. We only spend an hour and a half at that Sufi dance concert, but it was an invaluable cultural experience that will remain with all of us for a very long time.