Al Tannoura (September 2010)


Dance is always beautiful, reflected in the movement of life itself from a butterfly flitting around the jasmine bush in my garden to the elegance of classical dance and the rich tempo of modern jazz; but when it is performed as a deeply spiritual movement I find it very inspirational.

Such was the case; I realized when I saw the ‘Dance of the Skirt’ for the first time, performed by the Al 'Tannoura' Dance Group of Cairo, Egypt’s main Sufi dance troupe. ‘Tannoura’ literally means ‘skirt’ in Arabic, but by extension it can also mean the dance itself.

I have always found concentric circles appealing whatever the source. Whenever I am near water, I love to throw pebbles just to watch the ripples of circles that ensue – an ongoing process of creation. It is this rotational movement that is a source of great inspiration to me in my paintings, doodling and photography – and now I understood why in the spiritual chanting, and whirling movement of this ancient dance form of religious worship in remembrance of the Prophet and Muslim saints of the ages.

Al Tannoura is a ritualistic dance that describes a spiritual journey. It involves many religious perspectives of life that can be found throughout the Muslim world. It is a dance akin to the one performed by the Mehlewi Whirling Dervishes but indigenous to Egypt.

Infused with religious chanting and distinctly religious elements, it is not solely rooted in the Sufi tradition. According to some historians, its use in religious festivals predates the Mehlewi form founded in Turkey in 1273 CE by followers of Jalal al-Din Mohammed Rumi. Known as the Whirling Dervishes, it has spread throughout the world – each order manifesting the dance within its own cultural and spiritual understanding.

The dance unfolding before me, enriched by the colorful variations of Egyptian folklore, was complimented by the beautiful musical rhythms unique to Egypt that enhanced the spiritual impact of the dance. The tempo, rhythm, swirling movements and the artistry of the dancers in the way they manipulated their ‘tannouras’ ensured that we were mesmerized by the soothing music and rainbows of colour that embraced us for a moment.

Within the Sufi tradition, the nai (reed flute) holds great significance as a metaphor. The wind passing through the instrument is not just the breath of the individual musician, but the breath of God. Indeed, the aim of concentric whirling by the Sufi dancer is to reach the source of all perfection, by abandoning one's personal desires and ego, by listening to the musical accompaniment, by focusing on the one God, and spinning one's body in repetitive circles; a movement symbolic of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun, or as also pointed out akin to the movement of worshippers walking in circles anticlockwise around the Ka’bah in Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine.

The dance is thus a spiritual journey to inner purity, and contrary to popular belief, it is not to attain a trance like state; but rather a state of lucidity and clarity, at one with God.

Although performed by a larger group, my photos concentrate on the main soloist performer that made it easier to capture the artistic movements central to this hypnotic spiritual ceremony. The whirling can last up to 45 minutes, varying in speed according to the rhythm of the music delivered by the rababa (folk fiddle), the symbolic nai (reed flute), sagat (cymbals), and tabla (traditional arabic drum).
Coupled with the beautiful chanting, this unique moment of spiritual clarity gave us a glimpse into a world where friendship, generosity, wisdom and mercy unite us … a pause for hope and nourishment for the soul

Dodi Tabbaa 2010