I heard the strains of music accompanying Tanoura dance even before I saw the show. It was while walking down the maze of timeless narrow lanes of Islamic Cairo, that a hypnotic beating of drums reached my ears. The music pulled me to an old monument as if by force and I found myself standing in front of the famous Wekalet El Ghouri. Music was pouring out from the beautifully restored 15th-century Mamluk caravanserai and inside a most astonishing sight met my eyes. A Tanoura dance performance was on and the lead dancer was slowly warming up to the beats of traditional Egyptian music. He was a vision in pristine white and the accompanying dancers in similar costumes somehow managed to set him apart. I watched in open-mouthed amazement as he moved in deliberate steps while playing Sagat (Egyptian finger cymbals) and his feet tapped along with the rhythmic click-click sound.

Tanoura dance performance at Al Azhar Park


Sufi swirling on tanoura on a supermoon night

Now picture this! It was a full moon night when this spectacle unfolded in front of my eyes and the medieval monument lay bathed in a milky whiteness. The sky was nearly obscure from the pearly aura of the super moon which loomed overhead as a giant balloon and Cairo night traffic sounds murmured faintly. I don’t know if it was sheer luck (kismet as it is called in Egypt) that I ended up watching one of the most mesmerizing Sufi dance forms in the world on a supermoon night in a gorgeous medieval caravanserai, but the entire experience was absolutely magical.

Tanoura is the Egyptian Sufi whirling.

The ancient Egyptian art of poetry recitation and a mystic Sufi dance

It was odd that having seen the elegant ritual of the Turkish Sufi whirling, I would find the colourful, theatrical version of its Egyptian form to be so enigmatic, but the brightly patterned skirts added a hypnotic element to the tanoura dance. While the Turkish semazen had been a measured-paced affair with the dancers in white blooming like white roses, the Egyptian tanoura was like a psychedelic colour show.  The show started with a group of singers reciting old verses which were partially ancient poetry and a lot Koranic and they set the sublime mood for this fantastic dance. The recitation of the old verses is an ancient Egyptian art called “Al Tawasheeh,” and the singers slowly started moving in the last few melodious lines.

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The beginning of the Tanoura dance performance.

Tanoura message of the undivided and beautiful power of the one and only God

It was a slow liquid movement, with each performer playing his own musical instrument and the sounds of drums, Pharaonic lute, percussion, and sagat filled the air. Smoothly, without any abrupt changes, the seemingly paradoxical tunes built up to a unified harmonious melody that clearly marked the theme of the show. I was transfixed by the art and the message of the undivided and beautiful power of the one and only God and the performance had just started.

The energy of the nucleus and the atomic circle of tanoura dancers

The purity of the unrestrained, folkloric music was intoxicating and it was a moonlight-flooded night. The group of men, dressed in long flowing white galabeyas (traditional Egyptian costume) moved in unison and they swayed forward and back in a line, like waves lapping gently against the shore. Sometimes they travelled in a circle with the lead dancer performing in their midst like a nucleus. There was a subtle yet powerful movement of energy flowing back and forth from the dancers and the audience and silence descended heavily.

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The nucleus of the Tanoura atom

Tanoura is a much-traveled Sufi whirling

A dance that had originated in Syria, the Fatimid dynasty supposedly brought tanoura to Egypt. Here, the practice of whirling is called tanoura and it also refers to the colourful skirt worn by the dancer. With geometric appliqués of green, red, yellow, and blue representing each Sufi order, tanoura is a unique combination of Sufi whirling, Egyptian folklore, and the philosophy of life. The endless circular swirling motion of Tanoura depicts the movement of the universe and the philosophy of life. Tanoura dancers represent the planets and it is a story that connects men to the divine, referring to the relationship between the land and the sky, man and God.

“For a dervish, there must be a purpose, a cause for existence, and inside the cause, a True Human Being.” – Jalaluddin Rumi

As mesmerizing as the whole performance was, the finale was the real show-stopper and it lasts for nearly two hours. The rhythmic chanting of ‘Allah” in unison increase in speed as the dancers begin to move slowly to an almost feverish pitch. Their continuous persistent circles were a hypnotic sight and the quintessential tanoura skirts bloomed like large lotuses. They grew bigger in size as the circling increased the pace until they were large platters of colours around the dancers’ bodies. It was a kaleidoscopic spectacle and I was transfixed. “For a dervish, there must be a purpose, a cause for existence, and inside the cause, a True Human Being.” – Jalaluddin Rumi.

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

Travel Tip for Tanoura performance

One of Egypt’s best tanoura dance troupes puts on a mesmerising performance three times a week at the Wekalet Al Ghouri which is just off Sharia Al Azhar. It’s a great opportunity to see one of the most beautifully restored medieval spaces in use for an atmospheric dance performance. Just arrive early about an hour ahead to secure a good seat. The ticket costs around 30 Egyptian Pounds and the shows are from 19330 hrs every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Some Nile cruises offer Tanoura show as part of their onboard performance.

The trance-like phase of the tanoura dancer

Begins with the recitation of old verses.

Traditional musical instruments

Like sagat and drums are

Before the whirling intensifies.

The whirling slowly peaks

Until time and place blur

And the tanoura rises

Like enlightened souls being one with God.

P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Follow the rest of the Egypt series here