Senta Duffield - Principal and Director

My first Tanoura lesson

For a dervish, there must be a purpose,
a cause for existence, and inside the cause,
a True Human Being.
Jelaluddin Rumi

March 2010, Cairo

I greet Sayed Amar at the door, he has just carried his tanoura outfit, in a bag, up 5 flights of stairs, to Yasmina’s apartment, where I am staying, and is very short of breath!  As he sits, we start talking, and a look of horror passes over his face as he realises how little Arabic I speak, and that there is nobody at the studio to translate for him – this is going to be an interesting lesson!

Sayed starts by showing me how to tie the first skirt around my ribcage, it weighs a ton – ok only 5 kgs, but it certainly feels like a ton!  The scary part is that I know there is still another skirt to come!

Sayed teaches me the basic footwork and where to place my arms and tells me to spin quickly, which helps the skirt to lift to a parallel position. I soon learn to dislike and fear the one English word that he can speak “quickly”!

Sayed plays a basic Ayoub rhythm for my first attempt; it feels like it lasts forever. I stop before the song ends and almost topple over. Sayed shows me how to bend and straighten my knees, crouching down a few times; this exercise helps relieve the dizziness. And then I spin again – “quickly, quickly” he calls and makes clicking noises with his tongue every time I slow down and my skirt starts lowering. He’s a strict teacher!

My calves are throbbing, my fingers have their own heartbeat, sweat is pouring down my face and I feel as if someone has punched me in the solar plexus!  I do not want to go ‘quickly’, I want to get into my bed and cry. I cannot believe the physical discomfort I feel and yet something compels me to keep going as ‘quickly’ as I can! This is so much more than just dancing; something is stirring deep within me and coming to life! Even though I am learning ‘stage tanoura’, could it be that the Ancient Sufi beliefs of spinning to truly experience ones higher self and God are still working within me as I spin?

Suddenly an urge to lift my arms overtakes the pain and discomfort. I raise them up and feel the cool breeze on my sweaty skin. My breath becomes rhythmical, it is as if a spell comes over me – I can no longer feel my aching calves and burning solar plexus. I just feel bliss, calmness and love. I feel enlightened. I can go ‘quickly’, and I do!

The song ends and I stop, bending my knees to help clear the dizziness. A wave of nausea comes over me and I desperately drink the glass of water Sayed gives me. He tells me to sit for 5 minutes and encourages me to close my eyes and take deep breaths into my solar plexus.

All too soon, Sayed picks up the second skirt and ties it above the first one. The weight is incredible and I feel very small in the enormity of both skirts bound tightly round my rib cage.

A new piece of Ayoub music starts playing and I start spinning ‘quickly’.  The added weight makes quite a difference to my turn. I feel that the skirts are turning me rather than me turning the skirts, and that if I tried to stop, I wouldn’t be able to.

I turn for a few more songs and then it is enough. I feel so nauseous and my whole body is shaking. I beg Sayed to let me stop, he agrees and gives me a private tanoura show while I rest.  He shows me all the tricks I will be learning in my next lesson.  I cannot believe that I have been turning for the better half of an hour and a half! Sayed then takes my measurements for my own personal tanoura outfit, which he is having made for me, and will bring to my next lesson. I am a bit nervous – owning my own tanoura feels like a contract to continue working with the energy and connection, but I am determined to master tanoura!

I warily ask the big question that has been in my mind all along….’was I ok?’…’No’, says Sayed, ‘You – good!’

Tanoura or the dance of the whirling dervish, is the ancient Sufi dance of prayer, performed by men, who spin in brightly coloured skirts. Women are permitted to learn “show tanoura” only. The movement needs to be circular, working with the beliefs that the world starts spinning at one point and ends at the same point – the circle of life. The tanoura dancer holds his right palm up to face heaven and his left palm down to face earth, thereby connecting heaven and earth. The colourful skirts depict the many human emotions. The word ‘Tanoura’ refers to the dancer, the dance and the skirt.