I keep falling, I keep falling down
I keep falling, I keep falling down
If you could only save me
I’m drowning in the waters of my soul
-from “Nothing Left to Say” by Imagine Dragons
These words ring in my head as the outro fades, as my feet slow and the blur of my kitchen comes back into focus. My eyes pinpoint the picture on my wall, then the stove’s vent-hood, then the window, then the bulletin board. These anchor me back to the world, back to reality, as I finally stop with a heavy breath. My hands are shaking, my face is flushed. And for once, my mind is at peace.
I almost wrote, “It changed my life,” but that is entirely over-used, and not entirely accurate. I didn’t walk into that workshop as one person and walk out as a new human being. I was still Amanda. I was still a quirky mess of me. That day is not a dividing line of “before I started whirling” and “after,” with all of my problems on one side of it. But that afternoon was the beginning of a journey—a journey that keeps moving in a circle to the left.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a devout Christian home and wound up being the only agnostic in the group. My struggle with my lack of faith was a long one. I stopped going to church in my freshman year of college, and didn’t formally decided that I would no longer label myself a Christian until more than a year after I graduated. I had examined everything I was taught to believe, every conflicting thing I had read in that Hebrew cultural history book known as the word of God, and found some of it lacking, most of it outdated, and a lot of it completely ridiculous. I know for a lot of people it works, it’s comforting, for some it’s even literal. But it didn’t work for me, so I let it go.
But there was one thing, only one, that I missed from my church-going days: the music. Music and poetry are powerful tools of the religious trade, and the only ones that ever made me feel like I might possess the capacity to believe in any of it. It was what kept me anchored to that religious label so long after I stopped participating; in fact, it wasn’t until I started dancing that I realized why I’ve always connected so passionately with verse and song. It’s why as a dancer, I prefer lyrical fusion over any other form of dance: using the body to express the emotion wrapped up in the lyrics. But in the seven years after I stopped attending services, I hadn’t found anything that made me feel what I’d felt so powerfully from the religious music of my youth.
Until that whirling workshop.
The instructor was a belly dancer who was not Muslim, but had studied with a Sufi master. The style she taught wasn’t quite the same as that of the Whirling Dervishes, though very similar. She taught us what worked for her, the basic concepts of the practice, the posture, and other little tricks that she’d discovered along her own journey. We spent almost two of the three hours preparing, learning to unfocus our eyes without crossing them, to be aware of the space around us so we wouldn’t run into anything, to get our minds and our bodies ready to begin. We spent a great deal of time in sound meditation, first chanting together, then letting our voices turn it into an unbroken song that was like nothing I had ever experienced before, or experienced since. And at last, we were ready to give it a try.
The arms are crossed over the chest, right over left, and the eyes relaxed and unfocused as you take that first turning step to the left, the same rotation as the earth on its axis. Starting slow, you build speed as you go, letting the arms release and fall when they will. The right palm is turned up to the sky, to receive energy from your energy source of choice, be it a deity or the sun or the universe. The left palm turns to the ground, letting the energy flow through you and into the earth. And if there is music playing, you listen to it, perhaps letting it guide your speed as well as your heart, until you are ready to slow. You do so gradually, until your eyes start to focus on the objects around you and you eventually come to a stop.
If you stumble or fall (which you will, at one point or another) you must begin again. Stopping too quickly can induce nausea and headaches, but if done correctly you are not dizzy at all. This is called an ecstatic dance (ecstatic in the original religious connotation), and while it doesn’t happen every time, a good whirl is nothing short of a true religious experience. Even if god has nothing to do with it.
I left that workshop in a mix of joy and tears. It had been so long since I’d felt anything like that. I realized that day that nourishing the soul is just as important as nourishing the body; that belief doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with spirituality.
My own journey with spiritualistic whirling hasn’t always been easy. There have been times when I didn’t whirl for months, only to find it again and wonder why I’d stopped. I’ve had whirls that felt like nothing but a constant battle with my posture to keep from falling, and some natural-high inducing whirls to contemporary rock and pop including, of all things, Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I’ve ended up with some interesting calluses and a renewed fervor for taking care of my feet. I’ve recently started experimenting with the line of my body, with the position of my arms, with whirling in a skirt or with a veil, with the idea of performing—whirling is meant to be meditative for both the dancer and the audience.
But above all else, I’ve found a way to feed my soul without compromising my own individuality. Without having to conform to someone else’s system. Without a shadow of a doubt that what I’m feeling in that religious ecstasy is one hundred percent real. That my lack of faith in a deity is not the same thing as a lack of faith in the human spirit. Or even a lack of faith in myself.