The Mevlevi Turn, sometimes called "the whirling dervishes", is a sacred dance, called Sema, for Sufis who follow in the Way of the great Master Mevlana Jelalu'ddin Rumi. Rumi is best known as one of the greatest poets of the Middle East and lived in Konya, Turkey during the 13th century.
My analysis will concentrate on the theories and insights of Richard Schechner and Victor Turner. Although Erving Goffman also stands as a respectable theorist in performance/ritual ethnography, I will not address his perspective, not because he would have nothing to say about this dance, but because I do not believe he is as relevant to the topic as the other scholars.
I will discuss the performance elements of body gesture, movement, and dress in terms of text and symbolism. I will also show how music is an important element and effects the intensity. The perspective of participant is different but related to that of audience, and a discussion of Schechner's efficacy-entertainment model will follow. I will suggest how the participant might transform into the role and be in the flow of it, and show how the role itself becomes a dominate symbol. The movement conveys meaning in both performance and ritual terms. I will "thickly" describe the basic gestures and movement of the Turn, and reveal the cognitive, emotional and kinesthetic symbolism of its liminality. The liminality exists psychologically and socially, disclosing a spiritual knowledge and grace, which creates a profound self-reflection in the participant and possibly the audience. Let me warn the reader that these elements and the concepts which describe them are seen to be inter-related; thus they cannot be fully appreciated in the usual academic compartmentalization. Also, the liminality exists throughout this study, but it is up to the reader to come into this space with a concentrated reading and imagination of its content.
In Schechner's terms, the performance sequence actually begins with ones commitment and intention to Turn, with the permission of the Shaykh. Although the public performance of the Turn is the outward goal of practice, in actuality the practice is the goal itself. What I mean is that it is all seen as prayer, whether practice or performance. It all counts, so to speak. There is an outward performance on a certain date, and preparations for this event are actualized, but the practices are inwardly important because they involve the necessary transformation of the participants, and it is here at practice that the meaning of the Turn is recognized. So, the practicing beforehand is not just rehearsal, but it is part of the actual transformation of the participant. Anytime one practices the Turn he is performing prayer. There can be no sense that it is just practice, because anytime the Turn is practiced it must be done with complete surrender and religious reverence.
There are various components to the practices. One is inward contemplation or prayer, which is something personal to each participant. One comes to practice with a certain religious or sacred attitude and this attitude should become deeper and evermore reverent throughout the practice. For some this might mean a very deep sense of prayer. Another component is the music, which plays during the turning practice. It seems to set the religious tone and help the participants move into a more sacred consciousness, or maybe even into a non-ordinary trance-like state. The first part of the practice involves a few basic meditation type practices, which mostly focus on the breath and on the body. Next, there is study, which is the reading of Rumi's poetry and discourse. The Shaykh sometimes interjects and interprets the readings. Next, there is zikr, which is the chanting type prayer of the Sufis, known as "remembrance of God and His Names." They repeat "Allah" (God) many times and give all of their mind and hearts to this. It provides a way for the mind to concentrate on the Presence of God in the heart. During the Turn, "Allah" is often repeated silently on the breath. Finally, there is turning practice, which will be partly explained now.
Those who turn are called semazens. The semazen puts his weight on the ball of his left foot and twists his body to the left, the left shoulder leading the way. In one fluid motion he turns a full circle with the right foot coming up to meet near the back of the left knee. He rotates the circle again and again on the axis of the left foot. The foot remains on the ground at all times, which symbolizes the need for the dervish to live in this world, as well as in the sacred. Each of the semazens turn on their own axis in their own designated space. It is important to remain in the exact same spot continuously, not drifting off accidentally. I am told that years ago in Konya, Turkey the young semazens practiced the Turn with a their left big toe and the next toe wrapped around a nail tied to the floor, so that they would stay in one place. Later, near the performance time they would practice turning while moving around each other and circling the room in certain patterns.
Near performance time, and during the performance, they will turn in white robes (it's more like a dress, but very heavy cotton wove) with chains sown into the bottom rim, so to make the robe maintain a perfect cone shape while turning. But if the semazen gets off balance, or accidentally touches robe to robe with another semazen, the chained robe starts wobbling in a strange way, but not as strange as the feeling it gives. So, the chained robe can help maintain the balance, but only if the balance is maintained, because once it starts to wobble it is that much harder to keep the balance.
In attending some of the practices I learned the basics of how to properly turn, of how to stand and move. The full turn is done with the arms out-stretched, almost like Jesus on the cross. The elbows can be slightly bent, but should be about at the level height of the shoulders. The hands must be above the shoulders. With the arms out-stretched one should then relax as much as possible while retaining the basic position. The hands and the wrists should be completely limp, with the left palm facing downward and the right palm facing upward. Both hands should be open, though relaxed. The chest is full, like in a proud position, as in the phrase, "Chest out!" The head is slightly tilted to the right and ones gaze is peripherally directed to the left thumb from a slightly open left eye. One never closes ones eyes during the Turn, but the gaze remains relaxed, allowing in all peripheral vision, while just barely staying aware of the left thumb. In talking with some of the students: some rely on the thumb gaze more than others; but it does seem to help stabilize ones balance during the Turn.
One of the great difficulties of this practice is keeping ones arms up, and as students are practicing it is common to hear the Shaykh say, "Arms up!" Students have to build their stamina up so that they can at least turn for fifteen minutes non-stop. I was told that previous Mevlevi turners had to be able to turn for at least one hour! It is hard to imagine turning around and around for fifteen minutes. Try to do it for just fifteen seconds. But it is also hard to just keep the arms up for such a long time. So, part of the practice is fifteen minutes set aside just for holding the arms up. If someone starts to drop the Shaykh sticks a broom in their hands for them to hold up. The sheik says that discipline is the key to spontaneity. One needs to become so at ease and comfortable with the form of the Turn that they are able to let more of themselves go and be in the feeling of the Turn.
In the Mevlevi Way the Shaykh gives the orders and the students (mureeds) follow with obedience. In the Turn he is the grand dance master.
I interviewed the Shaykh, and he used the interview as a chance to teach all the students gathered around.
"The Turn is a prayer. It is not something one does to get high or get in trance or feel good over. It not something one does to become more spiritual. It does not get you points in heaven. You don't do it for yourself at all. You do for service. It is a way to transform higher energy for the planet. When you turn you are turning toward God and you are turning for God. In the Turn you give everything of yourself. You hold nothing back. If you do it right there will be nothing left of you. And to do the Turn you have to turn from the heart. You cannot turn from the head. You can't, because you'll get dizzy. And you don't turn from the `hath' center, that place just below the navel, where you do martial arts from. You can't turn from there, because you'll get sick and throw up. So you don't do it from the head or from below the waist. You do it from the heart. You don't think when you do it, because if you think your attention will go into your head and you'll get dizzy. You don't try to get something out of it or force it to happen, because this is coming from below the waist, like martial arts. It's not a head trip and it's not a fight. Sure, it involves some effort and it's not so easy at times, but you have to learn to put effort in without putting in effort. You have to learn to do it without doing it. You have to take complete responsibility for doing it, but you must give up any sense that you are doing it. It is a complete surrender to God.
The only way to do the Turn is to turn from the heart. You must be completely centered in the heart, which is the center of your true being. The way to do this is to give up your heart to God. I know it sounds paradoxical, but the way to be in the heart is to give it up to God. You surrender your whole being to God, so that there is only God. You give everything of yourself. You die completely to yourself and surrender yourself to God, so that God turns you. You empty yourself totally, so that God can fill you with His Being, with His Presence. When you are turning properly there is no you. There is only love. You have died in love. You have allowed the ecstasy of love to permeate every cell of your body. When you give everything of yourself to God, only God remains. You give everything of yourself in love and only love will remains.
The first lesson in doing the Turn is learning how to breathe. Learn to breathe with your heart. Take everything in your heart and give everything out through your heart. It is a joyful experience. Most people never breathe consciously. They just presume the breath. They presume that it just happens and they live most of their lives never being aware of the breath. But everything is contained in the breath. The great Sufi Master, Ibn al-`Arabi said, "All is contained in the Divine Breath as the day in the morning sun." You look at the morning sun and you can see the whole possibility of the day. You become aware of the breath and you'll know all the possibilities of life. So, I ask all the mureeds who are going to turn to breathe consciously all the time. Never let a breath go unnoticed! Learn to be awake to the breath. It takes practice. And it's the most important practice for the Turn that you can do. If you lose touch with the breath while turning, you'll be in a lot of trouble -- you'll lose touch with the rope that holds you to God. If you lose the breath, it means you fell asleep, and if you fall asleep you'll go turning right out the window. You HAVE to stay in the breath.
The Turn is not for you to go unconscious. It is for you to be super-conscious, which means being awake in the breath. What I teach is to balance the in-breath with the out-breath. We begin by counting to seven as we breath in, and after a short pause, we breathe out to the count of seven. This balances the breath. It brings us in harmony. At first it may take some effort to stay awake and break any imbalanced habits by controlling the breath to be balanced. But after awhile, after some practice, the breath relaxes into this natural, balanced rhythm. It's really quite amazing. Now, breathe in through the heart all the love God gives you and breathe out through the heart all the love that you are back to God and to everyone on this planet. It is through the breath that the transformation takes place."
End of interview.
It is time for the performance. It is structured in a set time and within a defined space, and the Sema music defines each phase of it. The Sema takes place in the large living room of a house. Half is defined as the "stage" and the other half is where the audience sits, some in chairs and some on the floor. The setting of this movement/dance is a plain wooden floor with no props or ritual accessories. The lighting focuses on the performance space, while the rest of the room remains relatively dim. A blue and a red light gives the space some color, and makes the ritual more like a theatre performance. The ritual space is well defined with three walls and the front of the audience creating the other boundary.
Everyone is ready. Each semazen has had a quick meeting with the Shaykh and a kiss on the hand to receive his baraka (grace), his confidence and approval. They all know their order of succession and get loosely in line. The semazens proceed out into the sacred space, walking deliberately slow and followed by the Shaykh. They all sit and seem to go inward and become lost in the slow, melodic music engulfing the room. At a certain moment, designated by the music, they all slap the floor in unison, representing the first shock of awakening from indifference to the spiritual life. They then rise and circumambulate the sacred space three times, symbolizing the three stages of the mystic's unveiling, which are reasoning, the teachings and the final surrendering. Here the music shifts its tempo and melody, and the black cloaks are removed, as the anticipation increases.
One by one the semazens approach the Shaykh and await his glance, which gives them permission to turn. The semazen then kisses the hand of the Shaykh and begins to slowly turn and move to a previously designated place on the floor. He turns at first with his arms crossed over the chest, symbolizing his humility and last minute self-protection of his cocoon, then opens his arms while turning, like the opening of butterfly wings, which is his complete abandonment and freedom to (fly) turn. Other semazens follow, until the floor is full of turning robes. The white robes fill out at the bottom, making a perfect cone shape, and their feet tend to disappear to the audience, giving them the appearance of floating on air. Not all the semazens turn at once. Some are sitting at the side in a line, and when one of those who are turning need to rest, he (or she) stops abruptly facing the Shaykh and bows - then leaves the floor as the next in line comes into the spinning arena.
There are four phases of turning, each representing a certain attitude or `station' of the mystical return to God. The Shaykh calls these the four turns toward love. The first is the awakening to the possibility of being in love. The second is the taste of love, which is the shortest phase of turning (about 3 minutes). The third turn is when we have conviction or complete belief that we are loved, and this is the longest phase (about fifteen minutes). Last, there is no separation between the lover, the beloved and love itself. Here, one completely merges into the unity of love, and there is no consciousness of anything but love. In this phase the semazen is allowed to completely turn on his own, without the Shaykh `holding him in his breath'. And during this time the Shaykh comes forward into the center of the space and rips open his cloak to bare his chest, then slowly turns round and round, while semazens turn throughout the space around him. Then, the Shaykh slowly goes back to his `post', while continuing to slowly turn. Once back, he adjusts his robe back to how it was, and the semazens one by one leave the floor to go sit at the side, until there is only one last remaining semazen. The lights dim with only the spot light on him. He slows down and finally abruptly stops, facing the Shaykh. He makes a deep bow and backs his way to the end of the semazen line and sits. For a few minutes the spot light remains on the empty floor and all is still in the room. The music carries on, but much slower now, as everyone seems to be in a state of deep reflection, or maybe slowly waking from the dream. The music ends and the Ceremony is over.
There are a variety of performance elements in Sema. The first and most important is the human body in motion. This is what is dominantly witnessed. The white robes and brown hats are also dominate elements. The floor and lighting provide the spatial context for the movements, and the music seems to help create the spiritual atmosphere and religious mood. Another important element, which is more subtle, but none the less powerful to those aware, is the breath and spirit of the performers. Their breath, their fervor and perseverance are felt throughout the room.
Music is a basic component of the Sema. It sets the mood and creates a sacred space. It also controls the intensity. The Mevlevi music plays on tape. There are drums, violin, oud, rabab, bansuri, trombone, tar, and most important, the reed flute, called a ney. The ney stands out when played. Its sound represents the broken heart, the heart separate from its lover and longing for union with the Beloved. They play the music loud and the melodic motion of sound fills the room. It fills my heart with a strange combination of ultimate sadness and ultimate joy. For those who turn it is like the electrical juice that feeds the continual movement. It does not let up, and one can hear the gasps for air as the wood-players fevorishly build the tempo and excitement. You can feel the musicians becoming more and more lost in the music and their hyperventilation becoming evermore felt. It is a music of ecstasy and religious exhaustion of self. As the music tempo increases, some of the semazens seem to speed into overdrive.
The intensity of the performance subtly grows, but it does not reach any final crescendo. Instead, it builds from a serene mood to a religiously exhilarating mood, which captivates all and remains at a certain high level of emotional/sensory intensity throughout until the end. What builds the intensity and sustains the mood is the music, which is basically a similar tone and melody repeating itself in different ways (that is from my perspective - a more knowledgeable musician would hear more subtleties of change in melody, rhythm, tone, etc.), though gathering momentum as it knocks more feverishly on the door of the heart. And of course there is the continuous, repetitive turning to maintain the intensity and trance-like awe. Once the turning begins, there is no break and the turning goes on throughout the performance.
This is not an audience participation event. Originally, the Sema was an event of music, dance and prayer, which the Brothers took part in. Probably what happened, and maybe still does in Dervish circles, was that many of the Brothers came together to play music and chant or recite prayer together, and as the feelings became stronger and the religious intensity grew, many of them would rise and turn round and round in an ecstatic inspiration of love for God. Some would merely watch but all were given the support to make outward "performance" of their feelings. This is how some people speculate the origins of the Sema ritual, which is structured as it is in this performance. This is a structured ritual and reserved for only those rehearsed and in the performance.
Still, the audience can participate to some degree, that is in their feelings and sympathies, depending upon how much they open themselves to the spiritual inspiration and "grace". More than any other dance or music performance I have ever watched, none has moved and engaged my emotions as this has. As one person said, "It is spell-bounding." As far as the entertainment value of its theatre, vs. the efficacy of its ritual, to use Schechner's infamous model, the person who watches from an emotional distance or who cannot perceive the spiritual symbolism will judge this performance as either good or bad entertainment, while the person who allows himself to be emotional engaged and who knows what is effectively going on will be able to participate in its ritual efficacy.
It is possible to understand the "text" of this performance, but it cannot be understood with just the rational mind. The text, meaning the knowledge hidden or revealed in the performance, is transmitted through the emotional/cognitive symbolism of the movements, the sequence, the costume, the music, and all these in relationship. There is no verbal text. There are no spoken words or explanations given to the audience. As the Sufi Shaykh said, "Real knowledge is transmitted, not acquired."
Still, there is a text, because there is a structure. And there is a definite role to play as part of that text; though the semazen would certainly not call it play or a role-play. For the semazen this is a form whereby he can give up his ordinary personality and become a perfect, pure servant of God. The semazen would rather say that he is taking on a function, a divine function as a mediator between heaven and earth, which for him is a reality, not a mere performance for an audience. Yet, this divine function of mediation is also between God and the audience, because the audience is a recipient of the divine transmitted through the semazen. He performs the Turn for service, to transmit this divine energy (or we could say text) for the audience and the world).
He is also performing an act of prayer that has nothing to do with the audience per se, because in his heart he is turning to God, or as the Shaykh said, "he is surrendering his heart to God." This is actually the opposite to theatre performance, because it is completely anti-social, as he is `turning' his attention away from the audience and the world, going inward. This is the aspect to the ritual which is intended as a personal transformation of the "performer," as in prayer or contemplation. In terms of Schechner he is taking on a role for a performance ritual that transforms him in some personally beneficial way (not mainly intended to benefit the audience), though the Shaykh says that any personal benefit is not the aim. So, there is one intention to serve others (and perform for an audience), and there is also an intention to perform the ritual purely as an act of prayer, making for a personal transformation, which is not dependent upon the audience. These two aims might seem to be contradictory, especially the sense of turning inward as well as turning outward (double pun); but this actually reveals the cosmic perfection of the Turn, having both inward and outward functions.
I think, though, it is important to remember that this is firstly a ritual prayer, primarily involving the person's religious feelings in movement, and it is secondarily a public performance (or shall I say entertainment theatre, so to not confuse Schechner's wide use of that term). So it is not so much as taking on a role of an actor as it is ritually enacting a personal prayer, which happens to be so powerful and moving that it has become public (by popular demand, or out of generosity). We are watching a ritual, which happens to be theatrically entertaining (though I think the Shaykh would not care to be in the same Schechner category as "Three's Company" or "Happy Days"). Note that the ritual depends upon the participants and not the audience; although I do not think it would be done with this particular formality without some audience. And also, the participants depend upon the ritual, for without it they would not have the opportunity to experience such states of moving ecstasy.
So where one finds the Sema on Schechner's efficacy-entertainment continuum ultimately depends on ones viewpoint. For the performer it is probably ritual, unless one is so focused on the service aspect of it that they are continually aware of their theatrical function. But for the most part the semazen finds the efficacy within his experience, which is not so determined by his outward "show". The efficacy is in the personally transformative experience itself, and only the semazen himself can know how "well" he did, since there are many invisible levels of spiritual abandonment or ecstatic attainment, none of which the audience is privy to.
In other words, the ritual efficacy of the performance is in how it transforms the participant (and the audience as well), so this can not be judged from an objective distance, but can only be known by the one who is being transformed, and each is different, with different experiences for which there are no scales. So, the real success of this ritual cannot be known by the senses or the outward appearance of its success (as in, "they turned so perfectly; they did so well"), because the real transformation of each semazen (as well as anyone in the audience) is invisible to any ordinary (theatre) perception.
There are elements which make the Sema a powerful aesthetic performance in Schechner's category of theatre. One is its beautiful simplicity. There are no props to this performance, except the performers, their dress and the music. The dress for each semazen is white, though they first come out and sit in prayer wearing a black cloak. The Shaykh wears only black. He wears a tall brown hat with a green scarf around it. The semazens also wear tall brown hats, approximately a foot high, which must be snug on their heads, else they would fall while turning. The robes, as well as the music, give the Sema an especially religious atmosphere.
In my mind, the performance is especially aesthetic BECAUSE of its ritual efficacy. The fact that it is a ritual prayer and that the participants ARE turning to God, however that may feel and mean to them, makes this performance more aesthetic and meaningful to me. It is not just the white robes, the simplicity of the movement, or the music that creates the aesthetic quality, though these surely do create the performance and its ambiance; but it is also the spiritual symbolism and religious feeling that makes the Sema so very special to many people. By Schechner's definition the word `aesthetic' refers to that which is outwardly visible as form and movement, such as the movement, the costume, the setting, and music, but I want to make note that the aesthetic quality cannot be completely disassociated with the spiritual feeling that comes through the performance. The very sense of appreciation of the performance is not just because it is beautiful, which it is, but because it has spiritually uplifted me, due to the cognitive/emotional effect of its aesthetic symbolism AND the transformative feeling of those who turn.
Transformation is the key element in the Turn. The purpose of the Turn IS transformation, both for the participant and the audience. In fact, that purpose even extends to the whole world, because the Turn is felt to effect the whole planet, not just those who happen to be watching. This is its cosmic function, in a similar manner that Brahman priests perform ritual for the maintenance of the world. It said in the Sufi tradition that if there was not at least one human being turning to God, the world would cease to turn on its axis. Here, the figurative becomes the definitive, and vice versa.
The basic symbolism of the Turn, with one hand open to the above (God; higher energy; the heaven) and the other hand facing down to the earth, is the prima archetypal image of Man, the intercessor between heaven and earth, the medium or transformer of spiritual energy into kinesthetic energy and finally into aspirational energy for humanity. The semazen represents God's agent on earth, who, by his turning to God in complete purity of self (white robe), allows God's Love to enter freely this plane of existence. So, transformation is not only a fundamental element to the performance, in the sense of transformation into a role, but it becomes the prime symbol of the performance itself.
The question comes up in this, "How do they do it?" How does this transformation into another consciousness or into another identity (***in this case - non-identity, since it is the annihilation of self identity that is the goal of the role) take place? There is of course some technique, but most important seems to be the attitude and ego (or self-conscious) abandonment of the semazen. What makes the Turn possible IS the flow, IS the context, IS the music, and IS the prayer -- and possibly it IS the Grace. Also the Shaykh, whom one loves and trusts completely, gives the semazen the confidence they need.
The role is consciously taken on, or entered into. One gets into it in a number of possible and related ways. First, there is the "role-model" of Mevlana Rumi, who is the original Sufi Master of this spiritual lineage. In the training period, officially lasting 1001 days, the semazen reads the poetry of Rumi and invokes his love and guidance. There are many important stories of Rumi, but the one most important here is the story of when Rumi was walking the streets of Konya in deep prayer and spiritual abandonment, when he heard the goldsmith rhythmically pounding in his shop, and Rumi suddenly understood the divine secret of creation and in complete ecstasy he turned round and round in the streets like a mad man, or a lover turning to God. The Mevlevi Brotherhood, formed after Rumi's death, and they were known to turn as part of their ecstatic prayer, and every year on the anniversary night of Rumi's death, known as his wedding day, or when he finally reached complete union with God, The Beloved, the dervishes make sema (ceremony) and invite friends to attend.
So, Rumi is the guiding spirit behind the Turn, and in the imagination he is the supreme role-model. In a sense, the semazen is re-enacting Rumi's turning, and so coming into that role. Another important factor of the role-taking is the person's predisposition for it. Not all Sufis or even Mevlevi Sufis perform the Turn. One is called to that function from within. It is seen as something one is destined to do. So one feels that it is the right thing to do, and one feels confident that God has chosen one and will lead one in it.
Another factor in the ability to do this is the putting on the robes. One is endowed with the function, and hence the spiritual grace, when the robe is put on. I was allowed to try on the robe and I immediately felt a peculiar inspiration and longing to turn in it. There is something very special about the robes, and it is something to do with an emotional and kinesthetic response to that symbolic dress.
Another factor in the efficacy of this role, and fundamentally the most important, is the state of consciousness necessary to do the Turn. Many writers and observers of these "whirling dervishes" have insisted that they were deep in some trance-state, or possessed by some kind emotional frenzy (sounds psychotic). But, according to the Shaykh and the semazens who do the Turn, it is not trance, but super-awareness. Of course, it is almost impossible to judge someone's state of consciousness, and our western psychological definitions might very well be inadequate to the task. Undoubtably, it is a sort of trance, or a kind of relaxed concentration, or at least a non-ordinary (or altered) state of consciousness. The Shaykh himself is said to "hold the space and everyone in it" from his higher level of consciousness, whatever that is. What we can know is that the semazen turns with a definite religious orientation, he surrenders his thought and focuses the attention in the heart, "to become one with God." If it is a trance state, it is not a blissed out, unaware dream state. The semazen has to be conscious of the breath, his foot on the ground, maintain balance, and keep his arms up, plus be somewhat aware of the other semazens, so to not step into them. This is obviously not the same `trance' that one sees in India or in tribal societies, where the person needs help to just stand up. Maybe this state of consciousness is more similar to some dancers, who get into the dance so much that they become one with the movement.
Possibly the best understanding of this come with Turner's idea of "flow" (though this really is not Turner's invention). It is a repetitive, continuous, highly emotional movement. There is music to maintain the continuity and to relax into. All thought is relaxed (surrendered) and the attention is concentrated (but relaxed as well) primarily on the breath, the feeling of love, and the will to turn. One is in fact turning to God, so the stronger the longing, the more one turns. So the analogy becomes the kinesthetic feeling and `turns' into the actual movement. This creates a unity in consciousness, between movement and mind. And obviously, the more one has mastered the technique of turning, the easier it is to go deeper into the psychological state of free flow.
The ritual structure itself maintains the flow. It is non-stop. There is no time to think, but only to pray and intensify one's absorption into the overall feeling (or liminality). The action, the movement, becomes one with the awareness, as one fully gives oneself to that movement. The movement and the flow become spontaneous, meaning that it just goes by itself with less force. Some of the semazens have spoken about their feeling that the ritual itself takes on a life of its own, and one feels to be propelled along by a grace or force beyond ones own.
There are different levels of meaning and symbolism to the Turn and many of these have already been expressed. In fact, the Turn is "thick" (Geertz) with meaning. Its symbols thickly exhibit multi-vocality, unification and polarization. There is not one orthodox, acceptable, literal meaning to the Turn or the various elements in it. The meaning can only be known through experience or in the imagination of that experience (as is the case with you the reader). We can understand the Turn from a viewer's standpoint and from the participant's standpoint. Then, if we merge these we can know an even greater significance, just as the viewer of the Turn can understand it to greater depths if he can sympathize with the participant (ie. allow himself to feel as though he were turning).
First, the Turn represents one's turning to God. One is actually turning towards one's own heart (notice the semazen turning to the left - and where is the heart?), which is where God is found. As the Shaykh told me, "They are disappearing into their own vortex." So as the semazen turns there is less of `him' turning, because he is surrendering himself into the heart, which is the center balance point for the turning. The emotional aspect to this symbolism is directly related to the cognitive explanation above, because one feels as though one were turning into God (note the cognitive pun, which is actually part of the multivocality) and dissolving into the center (heart) of the turn.
But this is not just an emotional experience of the symbolism; it is a kinesthetically felt experience. The act of turning has a cognitive, emotional and kinesthetic aspect. In other words, the Turn has a cognitive symbolic meaning, that is turning to God; it creates an emotional response due the symbolic nature of the action, because it causes one to experience the emotional feeling of turning to God; and, it has a kinesthetic reality, because the body IS actually doing what the analogy says - one is actually turning. This makes the Turn a unitive experience, as it unifies together the mind, emotion and body.
Let me say that my explanations are interpreted from interviews with the Shaykh and semazens, and they also come from my own experience at attempting the Turn. All my interpretations have been verified by the Shaykh, so I do not inadequately represent something by my own "objectivity" alone, as many anthropologists have done when they make reports of events "from a distance" and neglect to verify it (or at least balance it) with the most reputable insiders. The reason for my admission of subjectivity and my testimony of some verification is because any explanation is but partial, and the actual meaning of the symbolism is multiple, and the depth of this `thickness' is surely beyond my grasp.
Another fundamental symbolism of the Turn can be realized by considering the role of the arms. The arms are out-stretched. In one sense this can be related to Jesus on the cross, as the sacrificial human nailed to the world. It symbolizes the divine being pinned down here in this world. Related to this is the emotive symbolism of vulnerability. One's arms are out-stretched and the heart is unprotected and open to the world. It is a stance of pure trust and allowing whatever is to be to be. It is also in a sense saying, "Here I am --Take me, I am yours."
The kinesthetic feeling of this gesture maintained extendedly IS what makes that cognitive symbolism real in the body. In other words, I can look at someone with their arms extended in this way, but my understanding of what it means to the person (ie. what was stated above) is severely limited unless I make that gesture myself (or imagine/sympathize with it); and thus, kinesthetically experience what it is like. We know by experience, and mere cognitive understanding is not enough. So, the dervishes have found a way to experience a cognitive and emotional reality in the body through a kinesthetic, moving experience. It is the prayer of the mystical quest acted out and felt physically.
Next, let us consider the symbolic significance of the hands. The right hand is turned upward and the left downward. The semazen receives the Grace in his right hand and transmits it with his left. Thus, in himself, he is the medium for God's Grace to enter the world. He is like an empty vessel, the function being to be the transducer of one level to another. It is through the semazen's breath that the flow occurs, for he breaths in Allah and breaths out Allah, and it is between the in-breath and the out-breath that the transformation occurs. And his gaze is upon the left hand, to oversee how the divine enters the world. This is not just a cognitive symbolic understanding, but is an emotionally experienced reality as well. One literally feels that one is the transforming agent of God's Grace. In other words, the participant takes the symbolism at heart and literally feels it to be so. Again, the kinesthetic feeling plays a major role in this, by providing the bodily sensation of an open upturned hand and an opened downturned hand, and along with the knowledge of what he is doing, this all forms a unitive experience.
In general then, the Turn is a symbolic dance, having multiple meanings associated with it, and these meanings are best understood when viewed from the inside of the Turn, that is from the participants perspective. The sensory/emotive aspect of this symbolic dance is also best understood from the participants viewpoint, who not only stands at the center of the movement and performs it, but also feels that cognitive/ emotional symbolism kinesthetically.
Due to the spiritual symbolism of the movement, the arms, the hands, the robes, the hat, the music, and the Shaykh, as well as other minor elements, the participant has certain kinds of sensory/emotional responses and corresponding kinesthetic feelings. The emotional responses probably vary for each participant, but in general those emotions can be described as devotional, surrendering, lost in love, ecstatic jubilation, freedom, trance-like bliss, and servility. The kinesthetic feeling and cognitive symbolism of the turning around one's own axis evokes an emotional feeling of being free of the world and joyfully spinning in love. It also evokes the feeling of turning toward one's own heart to find God, The Beloved. The arms stretched out evoke the feeling of surrender and being open as a willing subject for divine inspiration. The hands, up to receive and down to give, evoke the feeling of being between one world and another, being the mediator between a higher and lower reality, and it evokes the feeling of being a vehicle for a greater purpose. In all of this we can see how the cognitive, the emotional and the kinesthetic combine together and are actually necessary for each other.
Other symbolic elements are the white robe and the hats. The semazen first comes into the sacred space wearing a black cloak over the white. This represents his being veiled from the truth of his divine nature. His reality is black, because he cannot see the light of God as yet. Another cognitive meaning is that he is secret to the world and hides his mystical experience from those around him. Then, because the space is felt to be sacred (or safe) and the Shaykh stands to protect him, he willingly removes his cloak, allowing his heart to stand naked to the world (represented by the audience). Thus, the white robe represents himself in utter purity, and this innocent, primal nature opens up to be vulnerable. This vulnerability and surrender are all qualities of love. The white robe represents the heart's unstained purity. It represents the heart unveiled and vulnerably open to receive whatever God gives. So, the robe has a variety of symbolic meanings. Ultimately, it means whatever one feels it to be, however one emotionally responds to it, which really makes the meaning valid.
The hat represents the tomb of Mevlana. It is in the shape of a tomb. It's deeper meaning in the Turn is that the person who wears it is really dead. The one who turns is dead, because he has given himself up to God, has surrendered his personal ego-identity and so has died to himself. This is part of the symbolic language of the Mevlevi Sufis. As Mevlana Rumi says, "Reason is powerless in the expression of love. Only the lover can know what love is. So die in love if you want to remain alive." For the Sufi, death is the spiritual goal, because what remains after death is the essential truth -- the Reality of God. God is the only truth and the only reality there is, but we are veiled from realizing this, because of our ego-identity and our fear of death. So Mevlana says, "Die before you die."
The symbolic meanings are hidden for some and manifested for others. The audience can sympathetically experience this cognitive/emotional symbolism the more they allow themselves to feel what the Turn is for the participant. This sympathetic response seems to work well when viewing the Turn. For many people, there is an inner recognition of the cognitive/emotional symbolism, and they can even imagine the kinesthetic feeling. They see the Turn and spontaneously know what it means, because of the cognitive recognition and the emotional response to that form of dance/ritual. Probably more than most other dance or ritual, the Turn of "the whirling dervishes" has such an aesthetic simplicity, beauty and drive, that it easily evokes a corresponding recognition and emotional response (unless one views it solely as theatre).
To witness The Turn is to witness a liminal space and reality. The Sema can become a liminal experience for the audience, depending upon their emotional involvement. And the Sema is a liminal reality for the participants, which actually builds from the initial beginnings of the performance sequence (the permission to begin the practice) and ends somewhere in the aftermath when one realizes it is truly over. The Turn is a kind of initiation into a different orientation toward life. It changes ones life and how one perceives life. This change cannot be known or explained, because it is different for each person, and is something only the experienced can understand.
What we can know is that the participant experiences a reality set apart from ordinary reality. Even the concepts used by the Mevlevis speak to this liminality, as Turner calls it. The semazen is between life and death. He is at once the symbol of living man turning to God, toward union with the Beloved Lord, and at the same time he is the symbol of complete death of self, having attained the unity. We know he is alive, because he is longing and turning toward union, or death of self. But paradoxically, we recognize him as dead, or as the purified vehicle for the transmission of God's Grace into this world.
The semazen is truly in a place between two worlds, the sacred and the secular, because he is the mediator or symbol of their connection. He is the symbol of liminality itself, and not just the symbol, but the reality as well. He is turning toward God, which is turning toward death of all that he once was. He is surrendering everything of himself, losing himself in the unity of love. But he is not yet there. He has not yet completely died, so is somewhere between life and death. The four phases of the Turn represent his coming into this unity of love, which ends with the annihilation of self, when there is only love remaining. So, the Sema itself symbolizes liminality, or the process of transformation from being separate selves into being at one with all life, which is actually a death to the previous life. This inter-relationship between life and death is also an aspect of liminality. And the semazen actually experiences death and life together, when the body, mind and emotion all synchronize together in the Turn, and when he has lost himself in the Turn, and when the performance has ceased to be because there is no consciousness of performing, whether it be ritual or theatre.
The social aspect of this liminality is found in its distinct communitas (or anti-structure; though I prefer to not use this term, since it sounds too much like Weber or Marx, both of whom are prone to make grand assumptions about `our' segmented social structure, and the term `reversals' does not apply at all, because the semazens are not poor peasants trying to get in the spot light of grandeur). There is a definite feeling among the participants of comradery and brotherhood. The word, "Brotherhood" is commonly used to denote those who are initiated into a Sufi Order, such as the Mevlevi. It is actually a non-gender term and women are equally accepted and equally treated. In the past, only men were allowed to Turn, which is probably due to the Islamic custom of making a sharp division between women and men's gatherings. But this Shaykh is the first to allow women to perform.
The group is also known as "the friends", and of course each is equal in essence with each other, though it is assumed that some are further along the Path. It is only really the Shaykh who stands out from the rest, and he is recognized as the leader, the teacher and the one who can transmit the `Baraka', the spiritual grace continually passed down from teacher to student along the lineage. So, the Shaykh has a special function in the communitas and in the Sema, and it may be because all the students equally admit humility in the presence of the Shaykh that they feel as equals together (leveled social structure). Also, the ideology of the Sufi is to let go of personality differences, so to come into the essence of being; though each person's unique character and abilities are recognized and respected.
There is certainly a self-reflective quality to the Sema. It evokes self-reflection, which is one of the effects and purposes of this liminoid activity. For the participant the process of the Sema, from its preparation to its aftermath, has a definite liminal quality and the contemplative state is a very important aspect to this. Even the audience can participate in this liminality, if they give themselves to it, and the experience of viewing the Turn can evoke a spiritual upliftment and bring one into a contemplative state, or even a semi-trance. It is not just something to watch, but experience. And the experience is deepened when one surrenders to it and allows the music and dance to permeate the senses and emotions. The purpose of the Sema as a kind of theatre performance is just this, that is to create a personally religious experience in the audience; thus making for a public liminosity. So, the structure of the Sema is one that creates a deeply liminal, contemplative and `moving' experience for the participant, which `in turn' can create a spiritual experience for the audience.
The Sema creates a liminal, non-ordinary reality set apart in time and space for both the participants and the audience. It is transformative and produces a psychological shift. And this transformative aspect is not just an effect of the ritual, but is the very purpose of it. It's structure is transformation. The medium is the message. We are observing transformation in motion. It is the very dominate symbol and theme itself, as the semazens turn and turn again in a dance of continuous transformation. The transformation is from a personal identity to an archetypal identity, which is the self-less servant of God, or we could say, the transparent form for liminality. They are transforming (turning) until, theoretically, there is nothing more to be transformed, until there is no more self existing. It is not so much a transformation into (or turning into) some other identity, but it is an annihilation (or turning away) of self-identity, so that nothing (no-self) remains but God, or pure Love. It is a psychological shifting into obliteration. As the Shaykh said, "You turn into the center, the vortex, and you disappear."
The semazen loses everything. He loses all thought and all identity. He loses the world in his inward contemplation. All time and space dissolve, because there is no more awareness of it. Yet, what holds him here is the defined space and the defined time as guided by the music. And in one sense, he does have a defined role within a greater cosmological context, which is to be mediator between two worlds, the divine and the secular, just as he is mediator between ritual and theatre, the inward experience and the outward effect. He is a transformer of energy, as he is being transformed. He is revealing the divine truth of love, by way of his own loving sacrifice to be an instrument of its performance. He is the perfect servant and thus the perfect actor, who discloses spiritual love through his incessant turning to God and celebrating that union with evermore turning. He is the mystic in motion and this is the dance of prayer.
In conclusion, the Sema is both ritual and performance. It is both efficacious and entertaining, in the sublime sense of that word. The very nature of the Turn is transformation, and the coming into the flow of the role is necessary for the performance and the prayer of the ritual. Basically, the Turn has few elements in it. The movement is repetitive and simple. But it has profound and thick meanings, and it becomes a self-reflexive liminal experience for the participant. It is a sacred dance embodying spiritual reality into physical movement, and it discloses the mysterious connection between the macrocosm and the microcosm.
Oh day, awake! The atoms dance.
The soul lost in ecstasy dances,
In secret I will tell you
where the dance leads us.
All the atoms in the air
and in the desert know well
they are charmed like us,
And each one, happy or sad,
Is stunned by the sun
of the Universal Soul.