Sufi dancer 1-2

Sufi Dancers at Khan al-Khalili

Reading Time: 6 minutes
I did not grow up in a family receptive to art or performance. Though I took years of drawing class, my parents always judged my artwork against a metric of skill rather than an inherent value in my effort or care. During my music concerts, they would often doze off in the back. And it’s not their fault; different people are differently responsive to aesthetic. However, as a result, while I am very appreciative of art, I often do not have a methodology to expressing my appreciation.

For example, while I am keen to view or watch art, I often any monetary obligation to it. I forget that, while my art and my friends’ art from childhood did not need price tags, real world artists need to eat and survive and do leisurely things just like other human beings. Additionally, I altogether do not know how to find (or pick) performances to attend.

Luckily for me, two other students who have begun learning Arabic at the school, Jurgen (pronounced Yü-gen) and Natalie, do know how to find and appreciate art. If not for them, both of whom have previously visited Egypt, I would never have been able to attend the Sufi dance show.

In Khan al-Khalili (see here), for three nights each week, the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe puts on a show for guests. Most attendees are Egyptians rather than foreigners; this is an authentic rather than catered display of culture.

Both online reviews and Jurgen and Natalie’s words insist that the performance is worth attending more than once; this will be both of their second times. Sure enough, when we arrive at the show, we meet a New York Poughkeepsie couple who had attended just a week ago, and they are back again for one last time before they leave the next day.

(I do not understand how this art could be that beautiful until, later, I cry a little; Natalie does, too, saying it was even better than the first time. We even have an existential conversation over fitir. This performance is magical.)

Kitten at the Sufi dance
Stray cats in Cairo come and go as they please. Despite the misleading frown, this one is an enthusiast for Sufi performances. (“Is this your first time here? What an amateur…”)

In Islam, Sufism is an approach to practicing the religion. Sufis are very devout and worship the same Allah as other Muslims, but they have different philosophies and practices than other Muslims. For one, they meditate in part of a Sufi whirling ritual, where they listen to music, connect with God and spin persistently in circles.

The Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe is a male musician and dancer group that publically displays this as an art form.

Watching Sufi dance on the floor
We trade sitting on real chairs for cushions in the front row. Though it is less comfy, it is a more intimate experience.

The show begins with men blaring trumpets and drumming percussion. Music imbues the entire vaulted-ceiling room. It is organic—no microphones or electronic mixing, and certainly no iPod earbuds. Lighting wavers between green, red and white. Natalie and I are sitting in the very front row—it is on the floor, but we want a better view.

Soon, there are solos—trumpet, drums and cymbals. The man with the cymbals is a comical grandpa. He dances and clowns around on the stage, moving his cymbals at magical speeds. The second drummer has a magical speed as well—he looks increasingly exhausted as he taps his drum as if touch-typing a keyboard. But the music is not exhausted and instead strong throughout the performance.

Sufi solo-4-2
The percussion is difficult and swift. It is so quick that it must be a workout; the performer increasingly looks exhausted, even when the music does not exhaust.
Sufi solo-2 whirl
This is the beginning of whirling that later does not end!

Then, there is the pre-rap music rap-off. Grandpa and the second drummer contest for the audience’s attention. They tease each other, and it is difficult to say who won.

Sufi solo "rap-off"
The last two soloists compete for attention. Their personalities show through; one is more muted, while the other one jests and teases both his opponent and the audience.

When they leave, it is not long before the lights are on and they are back again, this time on the balcony. On the main stage is a middle-aged dancer who begins his Sufi whirl. Round and round in circles, it seems that he will become tired because of his age, but no; it is more than half an hour before the man stops spinning. During this time, he uses his hand and face to communicate emotions, and he plays tricks, like taking off one of his skirts—but he never, ever stops spinning for the entire half hour. (This must be seen to be believed!)

Sufi dancer 1-2
الله (Allah) is the word for “God” in Arabic. The dance is an artistic medium to express religious zeal.

When he stops, there is an intermission of trumpets clad in black. As our eyes and hearts absorb what we have just seen—passion, hope and religious zeal—we watch three younger-aged dancers enter the stage. They perform more tricks than the older Sufi, but their whirling may actually have been less long than that of the elder.

Trumpet intermission

Sufi dancer 2-1

Sufi dancer 2-2

On the dancers’ faces are every emotion—ecstasy, melancholy, anger, regret and anguish—and they never need to say a single word. While the immutable whirling enchants us, we feel the entire collection of the human emotion library. The music is loud—almost too much so—and envelops us into a strange communal experience. It is as if the entire room collectively shares one emotional existence and, despite our religious, bringing up and ideological differences (ones that certainly exist, but we do not have the opportunity to precisely identify), we, the constituents of this musical room, are a community.

Why, though, did I cry? Isn’t this just a few dancers on a stage spinning around? Sufi whirling is, by definition, just walking circles around a stage. But I discovered today (perhaps too late) how magical live performance can be. Though I have been in many of my own live performances and have listened to performances of classical European repertoire, I do not think I have ever felt as much emotion from a stage as here.

I tear a little when contemplating the human experience. As every kind of passion—the good kind, and the bad—flutter over the performers’ faces, I think about how, in the span of life, we have hope, we lose hope and sometimes, in a sudden calm, we cease to need hope. Sometimes, it is so painful to live, yet life has so many colors that make the beautiful parts worthwhile.

Sufi dancer 2-4
The Sufi dancer is skilled enough that even when he takes his turban off or it unravels—it is unclear which—he never stops whirling.

In this swarm of colors, the dancers spin like tops and then become tops. Are they still people, or have they transcended to become the colors that we see?

Sufi dancer 2-3

Sufi dancer 2-5

When the rest of our group leaves, Natalie and I eat fitir together at Khan al-Khalili. She discusses a similar contemplating experience; the dancers’ enormous passion made her cry a little, as well. How can a single performance make us think so deeply about life, about ourselves and about existing? Natalie says the second performance was even more eye-opening than the first, and she even tries to contact the older dancer. She is a New York City dancer, and hopes to learn from him so that she can better express emotion with body language, like the way that he did.

We often try to ignore our emotional existence in favor of the rational one. The rational one is more logical and “better for decisions” and more pragmatic. But deep down inside, there is a well of passion waiting to rupture. It is a beautiful but intense kind of rupture, like the flare of a geyser. Mine ruptured today in a swath of pirouetting color.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *