A Whirled Apart

Whirling dervishes? That's one of those phrases that has somehow entered the language even though most folks have no idea of its meaning. The first thing that pops into your mind could be that destructive cartoon character Tasmanian Devil, or perhaps Grateful Dead fans twirling away at some outdoor concert. But the true meaning of the term can be found in a 700-year-old discipline still practiced today in one of the world's more striking spiritual ceremonies.

In what should be a most unusual evening, the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey will perform their meditation-in-motion on Tuesday, October 20, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The Sema, as it is called, is a painstakingly precise choreography featuring nine "Dervishes" (also called Mevlevi), accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra featuring such unfamiliar instruments as ney, tanbur, kanun, kemence, ud and kudums--various ancient Turkish forms of flutes, strings and percussion.

Not so much a performance as a sacred ritual, the Sema is a highly symbolic rite. Nine men all dressed in flowing white skirts with tall, camel's hair fezlike hats twirl steadily and deliberately some 20 to 30 times a minute. Raising their arms with one palm up and one palm down, they receive Allah's grace from above and convey it to the Earth. Often thought to be in a trance state, the twirlers are actually engaged in a remarkably deliberate collection of revolutions, bows and claspings of arms.

The Mevlevi are Sufis. Sufism, a sect of Islam, focuses on means of transcending this world--the term "Sufi" translates as "a seeker of the essential"--while the more familiar Muslim branches concentrate on means for directing moral action in this world. That simplistic definition, of course, can't begin to explain hundreds of years of religious teachings, but the differences are important. The Mevlevi, which represents only one of many different orders of Sufis, all with unique lineages and customs, are primarily distinguished by their adherence to the teachings of the 12th-century Islamic mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi's poetry and musical compositions will be heard to open the evening and as accompaniment to the whirling service.

It's certainly out of the ordinary to be presenting a religious ceremony in a performing-arts venue. But according to promotional materials distributed by the tour's sponsor, this practice has helped to keep the ritual alive. Traditionally, there was always an area for spectators to be able to watch the Sema. The dancers themselves must train for many years before being allowed to take part. The audience members are considered to be guests at the ceremony, and it's hoped that spectators and Mevlevi together can share the experience.

--David Gofstein

The Whirling Dervishes of Turkey with the Mevlevi Ensemble of the Mevlana Culture and Art Foundation appear at 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. Tickets range from $16 to $20. 994-2787 (SCA), 784-4444 (Ticketmaster).