Several different religions or philosophies use dance as part of their rituals.
One of the most well known in the West are the Sufis,
… partly because of their very colorful and impressive ‘Whirling Dance,’
… but also because of the popularity of some of the Sufi authors,
– for example – Idries Shah.
Most authorities believe that the Sufis are an offshoot from Islam,
… but some Sufi groups maintain that they originated well before the time of Muhammad
– and therefore pre-date Islam.
… they feel that Sufism is entirely different and should not be considered to have any connection to mainstream Islamic traditions.
Obviously there is quite a lot of confusion as to what exactly Sufism is,
… and from when and where it originated.
Many Sufi schools can trace their heritage back to various relatives of Muhammad.
And many authorities believe that it was nothing more or less than a more ‘mystical’ form of Islam,
… and that their various rituals, such as dance and music, grew naturally out of that mysticism.
Part of the problem of tracing the history of Sufism, is because it does not rely much on writings to spread its knowledge.
Most of the various branches of Sufism use mouth-to-ear or verbal instructions from master to teacher, instead of books.
History of Sufism
Sufism is generally thought to have probably started somewhere in the Middle East,
… but by the time of the Byzantine Empire they had already spread throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa – and even as far as Pakistan and India.
There were several different types or ‘schools’ of Sufism,
… each with a slightly different focus – usually depending on differences in their meditation or musical techniques.
Some of the most important of the historical different schools include the following;-
Qadiri, Chisti, Oveyssi, Shadhili, Jerrahi, Naqshbandi, Naqshbandia Owaisah, Ashrafi, Nimatullahi and Mevlevi schools.
In the different schools, some were centered around a specific geographic area,
… (for example the Mevlevi School, which practices the Sufi Dance, has traditionally been associated with either Mevlana or Konya – towns in Turkey).
However many Sufis became like wandering teachers, often dressed in very poor clothes, who just traveled around teaching to all who would listen.
They are generally referred to as the Dervishes, and there can be said to be some parallels between the Dervishes and the recent ‘Hippy‘ movement –
… in that both stressed personal freedom,
… a belief in ‘Universal Brotherly Love’,
… and a lack of concern for outward appearances, or the reactions of others.
Whilst the majority of the Sufi teachings are centered around the same teachings as in Islam,
… for example that of Dhikr – which is the remembrance of God as taught to all Muslims as in the Koran,
… they have a few unique differences, quite apart from using music.
For example there are many teachings in the form of poems, which are considered an important form of teaching for the Sufis.
Also, a lot of use is made of stories, metaphors and parables –
… often which appear almost shocking, or seem nonsensical at first glance,
… but are powerful tools to encourage ‘lateral thinking’ or alternates to usual reality.
To give an example, a typical Sufi saying is as follows;-
There are three ways of knowing a thing.
Take for instance a flame.
One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with ones own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it.
In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God.
The Sufi master, or teacher, is usually called a Shaykh and his pupils are called Murid.
Sufism is always taught with a group of students, or Murid, being given individual and group instruction by the teacher, or Shaykh.
They emphasize that this is the Only acceptable way to learn and understand Sufism.
The Sufis utilize many elements of Islam in their rituals,
… but the one thing that is unique to the Sufis is their use of dance or music as a spiritual rite in itself.
This has been enthusiastically accepted in the West, especially with the formation of more ‘modern’ forms of Sufism, that have been taught by such teachers as Idries Shah, Inayat Khan, Samuel Lewis and others.
The main attraction in the West seems to be the different kinds of ‘Sufi Dance‘ that have become very popular.
Most of the attraction seems to be around the sort of ‘mass’ or group dancing as taught by Inayat Khan,
… however, for me at least, the most interesting is the Sufi Whirling Dance as practiced by the Mevlevi branch of Sufis.
This is a wonderful picture of the Sufi Whirling Dance.
This is used as a technique for, among other things, letting go of the ego. The symbolism in it is as follows;-
The tall conical hat worn by the dancer, traditionally made from camel hair, represents the tombstone of the ego.
The wide skirt represents the ego’s shroud.
Before starting he wears a black cloak, the removal of which before starting to dance, represents being spiritually reborn to the truth.
At the beginning, the dancer holds his hands crossed over his chest – signifying the unity of God.
Then while he is whirling, his arms are open; the right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive the blessings of God.
His left arm, to which his eyes are focused, is turned towards the earth.
He revolves from right to left, around his heart as a center, and embraces all humanity with love,
… and conveys God’s blessings to all those who are watching the dance (which is also called the Sema).
It is amazingly dramatic to watch. The music is played using drums, sometimes a stringed instrument, and always a special kind of reed flute called a Ney.
At first there is a ritual entrance,
… where all the dancers bow to the Shaykh in turn,
… and are in turn blessed by him.
Then they shed their black cloaks, and start the ‘Whirling’ as the music starts.
There is always one Sufi, dressed in black, that acts as a sort of ‘traffic guide,’ –
… he watches to see that the individuals in the dance are not getting too close to each other, or to the sides of the dance space.
He moves around where necessary, and the dancers see him in the edge of their awareness, and move gently away from him.
The music itself is very meditative and almost hypnotic, and may go on for what seems a long time.
Then the music will stop – almost suddenly – and the members of the dance stand quietly whilst a verse from the Koran is read out.
Often this is a verse that says;-
Unto God belong the East and the West, and whither ever ye turn, you are faced with Him. He is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.
I think that what totally impressed me the most,
… was that the students – (or Murid) – doing the dance,
… were so wrapped up in the meditation of the dance,
… that at the end when they stopped whirling suddenly – there was not a single stagger or evidence of dizziness from any one of them !
(You try whirling around and around for more than a minute, then stop suddenly, and see what happens to you !!!)
Other systems that use dance
There are not any other particular systems that I am aware of, that use a highly ritual kind of dance like the Sufis, but other systems certainly use more loose forms of dance.
For example, consider the many forms of African tribal dancing, with a lot of use of drums and very repetitive foot dance steps.
These can be almost like a form of meditation itself, as I can confirm –
Many years ago, in the Esalen Institute on California’s Big Sur coast, I was there for a 3 month workshop that was looking at different aspects of meditation, spirituality and similar subjects.
During the course of this there was a 3 day workshop in African Drumming also going on –
… and we were invited to attend the last day of this, and join in with the African type dancing that everyone in the drumming workshop was doing.
After about 4 hours of literally non-stop dancing, it became as though the drumbeats had taken-you-over and it was almost like a very hypnotic and powerful form of meditation,
… that didn’t stop until the drums stopped !
Strong stuff !!
In the same way, drumming and dancing is also used in the West Indies in the Voodoo and other similar rituals,
… and long distance running is used almost as a form of dance meditation by some African tribes,
(… and to build self esteem, personal strength and self discipline as well).
Once again, as with the other Active meditation forms,
– the dance and the meditation cannot be divided, and therefore I am unable to give you an online meditation dance meditation lesson.
So to make up for that, I will tell you a Sufi story instead – by Idries Shah,
– talking about a fictional Sufi teacher called Nasruddin.
It illustrates what I was saying earlier about Sufism encouraging ‘lateral thinking’—
One day, Nasruddin rode up to the border of a neighboring country on his bicycle.
The customs guards let him through with no trouble.
Two weeks later he rode up again, but this time he was better dressed.
The guards gave a quick search, found nothing suspicious, and let him through again.
Another two weeks went by and he rode up again, but was dressed in really nice clothes.
The guards really searched him well, but could again find nothing, so let him through.
Two weeks more, the same thing, but now he was dressed in very beautiful expensive clothes.
The guards were sure that he was smuggling something, so did a complete strip search, but again, found nothing and had to let him through again.
This went on in the same way for a long time, and each time Nasruddin had expensive clothes that irritated the border guards, as despite all their searches, they never found anything suspicious.
Finally, several years later, when both Nasruddin and those particular guards had retired. Nasruddin and one of the guards were having coffee, and the guard asked –
“Tell me Nasruddin, we always knew that you were smuggling something back then, but we could never find anything. What WAS IT that you were smuggling ?”
“That’s easy,” says Nasruddin, “bicycles !”
I thought that you would like that !
Now we will move on to the next section that looks at Pain and Meditation – (don’t worry, I’m not going to get you to do any painful meditations !)
On some of the pages in the website there is an anonymous Survey form for ideas you may have for further subjects to be included in this website – please give me your thoughts.
Click to go to Yoga – Active Meditation 1
Click to go to Martial Arts – Active Meditation 2
Click to go to Pain and meditation – Active Meditation 4
Click to go to Buddhist meditations – Passive Meditation 1
Click to go to Tibetan Buddhism and Tantra – Passive meditation 2
Click to go to Zen meditation – Passive Meditation 3
Click to go to Jainism and meditation – Passive meditation 4
Click to go to Other Religions and meditation – Passive Meditation 5
Click to go to Mantras – Passive Meditation 6
Click to go to Mandalas – Passive Meditation 7
Click to go to Tai Chi and Chi Gung – In Between Meditation 1
Click to go to Taoism – In Between Meditation 2
Click to go to Sounds and meditation – Sounds 1