Photographer Aaron Huey’s Sufi Survival Guide: 11 Essential Dance Moves
Text and video filed by photographer Aaron Huey from Cairo, Egypt
I knew I was in pretty good with the Sufis when they started putting their snakes on my head (see it for yourself in the video posted above). They don’t just give their snakes to anyone you know. It was Imam Hussein’s birthday, I was in Cairo, Egypt, at the place his head is supposed to be buried. I was ten hours into my second night of dancing.
My reason for being there was to photographs their ritual as part of a global Sufism project I have been working on, but ten minutes into the first night I was dancing. For one thing, it was the only way I was going to get to stay, but it was also a steady stream of some of the raddest beats I had ever heard. I’d even go so far as to call it one of the top ten dance floors on the planet. With a heavy metal violin, a distortion pedal for the echoing microphone, tambourines, and reed flutes raging on for 12-hour sets, the musicians created a religious Mosh pit the likes of which I could never have imagined.
Who are the Sufis? The Sufis are group of men and women who believe that they can access God directly through dance, music, poetry, and chanting (that’s the super simplified version). Sufis are as diverse as the countries they live in, taking on many shapes and forms, adhering to a wide range of beliefs. Sufis are most likely Muslim, and can be either Sunni or Shia, though in the West there are newer lineages of Christian or vaguely New Age Sufis. You can find Sufis anywhere from Afghanistan to Vermont, Spain, India, Egypt, Chechnya, Iran, Mali, anywhere Islam exists (though, again, many groups don’t believe it must be linked directly to Islam).
Most Westerners are familiar with the dervishes, who rotate on a celestial axis until they are in tune with the universe. They can spin for hours without dizzying. Once in that place, the world is annihilated and they are at peace/oneness/bliss. Rumi is also a familiar name to many who have read his poems. He is famous for declaring that his "religion is love," and to many he is grand master of the Sufis.
So on this night of worldly annihilation, in the old City of Cairo, I found myself trying to be both in the world and out of it, trying to shoot and dance at the same time. Though I got pretty good at it, I often had to just and put the camera down.
Letting go of my life raft/professional identity dramatically helped my street cred with the more hardcore of the Sufis, and soon they were pulling me around wanting me to dance in the middle of the various posses that had formed. The band also wanted me to be their mascot from time to time, insisting, as though I were their circus pony, that I dance right in front of the band. "Dance, pony, dance!"
And so it went for the rest of the night, and the next as well, until all accepted me. I ate with the Sheikh. I hung with the face piercers. I befriended the snake charmers and the smelly dreadlocked street Sufis. Eventually I even won over a few of the big turbaned Arabs with their long staffs and stern faces.
So … if you should find yourself in the middle of a Sufi circle in Cairo here is how to survive the night:
THE 11 ESSENTIAL SUFI DANCE MOVES
Disclaimer: These moves are all for trained professionals and fools only. Please do not attempt this yourself; it could result in embarrassment, injury, or death.
(Though listed individually do remember that combos are huge, so string together as many moves as you can handle.)
1. The "DERVISH" – This classic move is a Rumi favorite. All you have to do is spin. Dervishes can range from classical and refined like those of Turkey, or loose and wild like the hashish-baked Sufis of Pakistan. Participants receive bonus points for wearing a red or green robe, or a patchwork of colors.
2. The "TRIPPER" – Tilt back on your heels and rotate around all blissed-out with your eyes closed. The larger you can make your rotations, the more points you get. (Beware, this move is disorienting, more so than "the dervish." It’s easy to fall over doing this one once you get into it.)
3. The "AIR GUITAR" – I think you have to be an old man with a cane and a big beard to do this one. I saw a toothless old saint wailing away on his cane turned upside down. I don’t know if he meant it to look like a guitar, but it did.
4. The "NEEDLE IN THE FACE" – Pretty straight forward, just find a big sewing needle and stick it through your cheek. Once you have done this you can pretty much just sway back and forth wincing and will be accepted, but you get extra points if you add extra moves on top.
5. The "HIP-HOP" – Imagine you are at a Jay-Z show. One arm is extended palm down pumping the air like you are spanking an imaginary ass somewhere out in front of you at the same height as your head, or higher.
6. The "PIOUS ONE" – Extend both hands out 10-20 inches from your chest, palms angled up towards your face like you are offering prayers. This is a good one to combine with "the tripper."
7. The "CAPE CANVERAL" – This move should be used often, preferable when you hear the word "Allah" in a song. It is as simple at pointing straight up into the air to where the sky god lives and where a space shuttle may be seen, if you were watching a launch. It’s kind of like a heavenly "shout out." Again, this is a good move if people start getting all self-righteous with you–just remind them what’s up there (a space shuttle).
- Nat Geo Expeditions
8. The "ALARM CLOCK" (AKA: WAKE UP CALL) – My favorite guys on the dance floor used this move to wake up the gawkers on the sidelines. It usually involved a loud surprising clap right in front of someone’s face or slamming a hand or cane against a pole close to your head. The message is, Wake up! You are sleep walking through life! "Alarm clock" is a good one to disorient people who are confused about you being there and may want to question you. Simply clap a few times in their face, point to the sky, and start twirling around with your eyes closed. They will stop asking you if you are Muslim. If they don’t, just grab your friend the "needle in the face guy" and he’ll tell them you’re cool.
9. The "HEART THROB" – This is also a very pious move, and is as simple as making a rhythmic patting over your heart with your hand while looking someone in the eye as if to say "I’m feelin’ it brother, right here brother." This often helps when people are scowling at you because they think you are faking it or are too unclean to be in their presence. Just smile so big that you shame them out of their righteousness and use a double hand pump if you have to for emphasis.
10. The "ANYTHING WITH A SNAKE MOVE" – Dangle snakes over the singer’s head or hold a snake between your teeth dangling it down your chin, or just drape them over your head. Extra points for kissing the snake’s mouth, licking the snake, sucking on its head, or wrapping it around the sewing needle sticking through your cheek. (I saw all these things.)
11. The "FACE OFF" – Rocking back and forth several feet each way (you can make a step with your feet as you do this) a Sufi may begin to get up in your grill making a grunting sound each time he comes close. This can be a grunt or an "Allah," and can be either a head butt or just really close face time (don’t
worry he wont kiss you). It’s a test. Don’t back down. Grunt back or say whatever he is saying. Once you have stood your ground you are in for good.
SUFI PHOTOS FROM PAKISTAN ON www.aaronhuey.com