By David Waterman

Trance conditions are fascinating phenomena. Over the years they have become an intrinsic part of important rituals of almost all the religions of the world. Medical science has yet to uncover the physiological mechanisms of these trance states and use them for therapeutic purposes. Strange whirling rituals performed by Turkish dervishes are one of the most interesting self-induced trance rituals that deserve special attention.

Known to the West as Whirling Dervishes, the Mevlevi Order was found by Mevlana Rumi in the13th Century. The Order was based on teaching forgiveness, tolerance, and enlightenment. The members survive today as a cultural brotherhood. Although the whirling ritual, called sema, may appear at first glance like a theatrical performance, they actually represent a sacred Muslim religious ritual performed as a part of praying. Mevlevi believed that during this trance the soul is released from it earthly ties and is able to freely continue its journey.

The term “Dervish” literally means “doorway”. It reflects the ability of the person to be a bridge between two worlds, the materialistic world on the one hand and the spiritual heavenly world on the other. Rami and his followers integrated music and poetry into the Turkish whirling dervishes and the “Sema” Trance ritual. The spiritual meaning of the dance represents a very important and complicated religious field, which is outside our theme: to focus on the physical and physiological aspect of the ritual.

The Sema dancer has a tombstone head representing the big ego and a white skirt symbolizing the ego’s shroud. At the start of the initial four movements of the ceremony, the semazen bow to each other. Their arms are unfolded with the right hand open up to sky and the left hand, upon which the dancer’s gaze rests, is turned toward the earth. The dancers gradually start whirling counterclockwise.

No one is rushed, and every step looks measured. The whirling is magnificent to watch, but it is important to remember that the dancers are not seeking ecstasy. Instead, they enter a hyperconscious state and maintain their perfect physical balance. Their eyes are closed, but dancers never touch each other; nor do they experience dizziness. The dervishes make small, controlled rocking movements of the hands, head and arms as they whirl. Rotating movements are accompanied by rhythmic music dominated by the sound of the reed pipe as well as drums and chanting as the whirling gradually transforms into a rapid spinning ecstatic move sequence. The whirling is done in three sections, each about 10-15 minutes in length. The movements of the feet are small and graceful. While one foot remains firmly on the ground, the other crosses it and propels the dancer round. The head and the feet seem to turn independently, and the body appears to be turning constantly.

The hundreds of twirling rotations (20-30 per minute) coincide with the theta rhythm in the brain and the chanting (they repeat the world God about 99 times) makes the dancers dissociate from reality and enter a different state of mind. The sheikh goes from one dancer to another to determine if he is getting tired and, if so, he nods for him to quit. When the ceremony is over, the dervishes return side by side in front of the sheikh and then move to another room to meditate. The physiological goal of the whirling is for the dervish to “empty” himself of all distractions. Similar techniques are used in some religious rituals in Columbia.

Thousands of years of religion have developed a deep knowledge of the human mind and techniques that influence people. Modern science should not disregard but rather study these types of experiences and use them to benefit medicine and help people of the earth to find balance and peace. The positive aspects of this type of dancing are not without a certain word of caution, however. Dancers should not use a rhythmic haunting music for belly dancers, especially if it contains vocalization, as it would be deeply insulting and offensive to Muslims.

Reference: Mevlana and Mevlana Museum Aksit Kultur. 2000