The impulse to move is as old as life itself. Viewed under a microscope, the single cells of the most primitive life forms can be seen to swell, contract, gyrate, bulge, suck in, puff out, spin, and glide as they move along their way. Life moves. Life doesn’t want to stand still, and so as the earliest humans surrendered to their primal impulse to move, the activity of dance began to emerge as one of the first ritualized forms of human behavior.
Rumi may have started out an orthodox cleric, but he became an ecstatic dancer. Through his understanding of breath and fasting, and propelled by his explosive meeting and communion through the gaze with Shams of Tabriz, strong energies of soul must have been awakened in his body. Like so many others before and since, Rumi discovered that the pressures of these strong, feeling energies (which Sufis describe as the intense and awakened longing in the heart and soul for union with whatever we feel so achingly separate from) could be relieved and released through surrendering to the movements of the dance. Some people believe that Shams introduced Rumi to the dance during their retreat, while others have suggested that Rumi opened to it himself one day after Shams had left when, out of despair over the loss of his great friend, he began turning around and around a pillar and didn’t want to stop. Either way, the encounter with Shams was the catalyst that helped Rumi awaken dormant feeling energies and sensations, and a natural response to this kind of visceral awakening is to start dancing. Musicians became highly valued friends, fueling the dance that kept the body in motion and freeing the poetic language in which he began to speak as he moved about town.
Dance became, for Rumi, a form of physical prayer that helps you loosen the tight grip of self and experience the energies of ecstasy, and so he began summoning friends to come together as a group and perform a ceremony of dance and music that he called the sema. After his death, Rumi’s son, Sultan Veled, would preserve his father’s teachings through founding the Mevlevi Order, which continues to this day to perform sema and train people in what has come to be known the dance of the whirling dervish.
We dance for many reasons--some personal, some social--but the dance’s ability to open the dancer to altered feeling and visionary states is as old as human life. Currently we’re living at a time in which the power of the dance is experiencing an emergence on a scale that has never been seen before, and the simple explanation for this is that music has become so ubiquitous.
Over the past fifty years, improvisational dance as a form of personal healing and spiritual practice has exploded from the pioneering teaching of people like Bapak Subuh, Gabrielle Roth, and Emily Conrad into the planetary rave movement that has turned millions of people into ecstatic dancers. Many of Rumi’s poems, in their invitation simply to surrender to the felt urgency to move, sound like teachings from the improvisational dance movement. How does one learn to dance? Just listen to the music, and let your body move. Still not sure? Look at how the branches on the trees move in a wind. They don’t try to do this step or that step. They just surrender to the breeze that moves them. Move like that, Rumi tells us. Move like the dust particles dancing in the light. Just surrender to the movement that wants to move you.
Others of Rumi’s poems speak specifically of the highly ritualized practice of turning the body in circles, around and around, over and over again, with arms outstretched. While the formal rituals of turning have been preserved in the sema ceremony of the Mevlevi Order, the actions of whirling, turning, and spinning around are universal to everyone (and, the Sufis would say, to everything). Little children love to spin around, and they’re always filled with giddy joy when they do. Because turning can make you dizzy, you have to find a way to go beyond yourself, beyond your mind, and this place beyond is ecstasy’s playground. While anybody can explore the turn on their own (the basic directions couldn’t be simpler: stand with arms outstretched, the right palm facing up, the left palm facing down, keep your gaze fixed on the back of your left hand, and then . . . begin to turn to your left around and around in circles and surrender to whatever starts happening to you . . .), people who feel particularly drawn to this unique form of ecstatic prayer may want to seek out teachers and communities for deeper guidance and training.
Music, Rumi tells us, is food for lovers. Wherever music is, dance follows, and music is now everywhere. So let the poems that follow inspire you to bring a dance practice into your life. Turn the lights down. Turn your music system on, and play whatever music is drawing you right now. And then let your body start to move. Don’t force it to do this or that. Just let it start to awaken, and follow its lead. The ecstasy is in finding out where it wants to take you.
untie your hair
spread your scent around
put the souls of sufis to dancing
the sun, moon, and stars
keep turning around the sky;
we’re in the middle
turning around the center
your singing and playing
are so beautiful!
even the lowest notes
start turning the sufis of the sky
the spring breeze comes running
making the world smile
it causes a commotion
among the young