Traditional Islamic performance brings meditation to stage

    Three semazens, or whirling dervishes, performed an ancient ceremony Sunday evening at Ryan Auditorium. (Photo and audio by Katy Witmer / North by Northwestern.)

    Bright shapes of white swirled to the sounds of lilting instrumentals and trance-like vocals. Undulating hems of heavy fabric and tall hats of camel hair bobbed, spun, and wove in dizzying displays of meditation and praise.

    Signaled simply by the lull of voices, the whirling dervishes threw off their black cloaks and padded onto the stage of Ryan Auditorium to perform the ancient Mevlevi Sema ceremony, honoring the birth of 13th century poet Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi.

    Whirling dervishes, also called semazens, are devotional dancers of the Islamic sect of Sufism. The mystic religion is centered on the ideas of unity with God, spiritualism, and love.

    The practice of whirling is a form of meditation intended to transcend the ego and bring the dancer closer to God. The position of the hands, the pieces of each costume, and the order of the movements all hold a significant place in conveying a spiritual gift to those who witness, as well as execute, the ritual.

    Sunday’s presentation was merely one piece of the seven-section ceremony. The Middle East Music Ensemble of the University of Chicago backed the three semazens, playing traditional instruments and singing folk songs.

    After less than an hour, the music halted abruptly and the dervishes paused, and the audience was still. The performance concluded when a singer muttered “thank you” and the dancers moved away from the stage, as if coming out of a dream.


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