Ever since a very early age, I was acutely aware that I transitioned in and out of two worlds. One was the material, and the other was the one of my imagination. I would write poems and create dances that would attempt to express what my imagination created. However, navigating these dualities would confuse and decenter me at times. Until I was initiated into the art of Sufi spinning.
I first came across Sufi spinning was I was 19. My family had temporarily relocated to Turkish Cyprus, and I quickly fell in love with the warm and welcoming Mediterranean culture there. A few months into my stay, a friend invited me to visit a celebration for the honored 13th century poet & scholar Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi. I was beyond excited, as Mevlana Rumi was one of my favorite poets. We began our trip inland to Konya, a city in Turkey that housed his tomb. Once I arrived there, I was greeted by a lively scene. Bustling evening markets, folk musicians and holy men at every corner, and food for a whole town to feast on! I learned that there were pilgrims from all over the country, gathered to honor and celebrate Mevlana Rumi on his death anniversary.
Later that night I was invited to view a Sufi dance celebration. We were seated around a huge courtyard and were requested to remain in complete silence. I could feel the anticipation heavy in the air, like the smell of the honey cakes that I had tasted earlier. Soon the lights dimmed, and lanterns were lit around the yard. I noticed a man in a white dress with a full-length circular skirt walk out to center. He put on a red fez cap, and then closed his eyes and folded his hands to his chest. After that about 20 other men dressed in a similar manner stepped into the courtyard and positioned themselves in a circle around him with their eyes closed. Soon, drummers seated to one side began a slow beat, and the dancers began to sway. At first the man in the middle began to spin, and then the others slowly started to revolve around him. The drumming eventually became louder and more rhythmic, and the spinners began to move with a sense of calm confidence. They kept spinning around the man in the center, while the man in the center spun in place. Eventually all we could see were billowing white skirts, and blissfully smiling men.
My friend then explained the dance to me. He said that the dancers were clerics from the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism. The type of movement was called “Zikr” or trance and had been practiced in that part of the world for centuries. The man in the middle represented the “Shams”, which means the Sun. All the dancers spinning around him were actually his students and acolytes, and they were rotating and revolving in alignment with the planets in our Solar System. The idea was to imitate the dance of the planets. And although their eyes were closed, they were connected to an inner vision of the planets. They also chanted Allahu (God is great) with each revolution. This chant acted as an anchor and helped maintain balance. Their movement philosophy loosely translated to the idea of “as above so within.” When I heard that phrase, I was immediately drawn to it. And that was also when I decided that I wanted to know more about the mystery of Sufi spinning.
As luck would have it, my friend’s uncle was one of the spinners in that circle. He had been doing Zikr for 20 years and agreed to take me under his wing. This was a little unusual, as the city of Konya houses stricter male-led religious spaces. However, my teacher was able to locate a smaller school where women practiced Zikr as well. As I began my training, I realized just how deep the Zikr really went. Some spinners could revolve and rotate for days and reach a state of pure spiritual ecstasy. This ecstasy was something I longed for in my own life.
As a dancer, I was in the happiest of places whenever I performed. But often it felt as if I had to split myself in half or live a dual life. Instead of being able to incorporate dance into my everyday life, I had to treat it as something I did for fun, or for performance. But learning from the Sufis, I came to the realization that they were actually dancing their beliefs. They were incorporating their knowledge of the cosmos and personal beliefs into their movements. “As above so within” became a real and palpable way of existence around them.
I chose to tell you about my encounter with Sufi spinning because it gave me the blueprint on how to coexist with my own duality. The two worlds that I would previously struggle to connect became perfectly bridged by this art form. I drew heavily from the lesson of being able to ground myself in reality, while allowing parts of my imagination to run wild and free. I do not have to stop any one part of my life for the others to work. As a mother, I can be rooted in my love for my son, but still reach for my career as a performer. Just as the Sufis chant “Allahu” with each spin, when I spin, I sometimes chant my son’s name with each revolution. This grounds me to my dual purpose – to follow my passion and also my responsibility as a mother. And how is that working out, you may ask? I welcome the duality these days! I am pursuing a career in the Performing Arts and have danced on numerous stages with diverse musicians and movement artists. My son is a dancer as well, and we often move together to enjoy our free time. He is my whole world, my cosmos. And from the Sufis I have learned how to carry the cosmos within me.
Radia Ali, who also goes by Noori, is a multi disciplinary performing artist and poet.
Follow her on IG @noori0202
YouTube: Radia Dancing