I practiced Dervish Whirling for a few years, though I now think it a rather odd thing to do. It looks much more difficult and impressive (especially if the traditional robes are worn) than it actually is. With practice, you can learn how to balance the dizziness and spin for an hour or more without ill effect. Someone accomplished in Dervish Whirling can move at high speed, navigating around other people, while circling through a very large space. While spinning, the right arm is raised, the hand palm-up; the left arm is lowered, palm-down. This helps one to maintain balance. But in a religious context (which I was never much interested in) it has additional meanings – one being that the power of the heavens enters through the upturned right hand and is conducted through the body into the lowered left hand and into the earth.

Dervish literally means “doorway”. The ceremony of whirling is attributed to Jala ad-Din ar-Rumi, better known as Mevlana (Lord in Arabic), who lived in the 13th century. It is a ritual of the Mevlevi sect, known as the sema, performed by Muslim priests. During the ceremony, the dervishes remove black cloaks to reveal the tennure (white religious robes with voluminous skirts). They turn around their own axis and around other dervishes, making small, controlled movements of hands, head and arms as they whirl. They are accompanied by music, often dominated by the haunting sound of the reed pipe or "ney", as well as drums and chanting as the ritual gradually transforms itself into rapid spinning.

Whirling Dervishes had a significant influence in the evolution of Ottoman high culture. From the fourteenth to the twentieth century, their impact on classical poetry, calligraphy and the visual arts was profound. Perhaps their greatest achievement was in the area of music. Since the dogmatists of Islam's orthodoxy opposed music, claiming it was harmful to the listener and detrimental to religious life, no sacred music or mosque music evolved except for the Mevlud, a poem in praise of the Prophet, chanted on high occasions or as a requiem.

I recently met someone who had studied Dervish Whirling with a group of people in London. Apparently, they bang a large nail into the floor, have the student place the right foot such that the nail is between the big toe and second toe, and then have them spin around the nail, using the left foot to propel themselves. The idea is to overcome pain through concentration.
Great! If you pass that test, you get to spin around a room with a sore foot. And you're paying them for the privilege.

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