When Trauma meets Art, Part 3

Fragments of Intergenerational Trauma

The Whirling Dervishes

“Movement is my medicine, my meditation, my metaphor and my method, a living language we can rely upon to tell us the truth about who we are, who we are with, and where we are going. There is no dogma in the dance.” — Gabrielle Roth

“To sweat is to pray, to make an offering of your innermost self. Sweat is holy water, prayer beads, pearls of liquid that release your past. The more you dance… the more you sweat, the more you pray. The more you pray, the closer you are to ecstasy.” — Gabrielle Roth

“The dance is not where we lose ourselves. But where we find ourselves.” — Gabrielle Roth

I am a dancer. At times, my energies, my body, my muse, and the music moves me into a swirling motion. I open my arms, tilt my head, keep my eyes open just enough to avoid colliding with other dancers. And I swirl. My focus is heightened. My legs are strong, my muscles and bones tense, yet my spirit is light as a feather. I am floating, sweat dripping, flying like a bird, empty of thoughts. There are other dancers around, but I am alone in my space — one with no worries or fears. In those moments, I am not only connected with the oneness; I am the oneness.

Once a year, in December, thousands of Sufis make the pilgrimage to Konya, in Turkey, to celebrate the life of the poet Rumi. He is the great thirteen-century philosopher and mystic of Islam. In 2014 Danna and I joined the crowd.

Our hotel room window faced Rumi’s shrine with its many blue-colored spires. Opposite the wrought iron bed was a wall clock that puzzled us — its dials rotated counterclockwise. Although Konya is a center of the Mevlevi Sufi order, it’s not an overly religious place. On the contrary, we felt welcomed, maybe in the spirit of Rumi’s famous line: “Come, come whoever you are, a believer or non-believer, a Muslim, a Christian or a Pagan, just come however you are.”

I felt a sense of hopefulness being in Konya and having the experiences we had. The Sufis are a persecuted sect of Muslim mystics that advocates unlimited tolerance and awareness through love. The splendor of the breakfast buffet was second to none. We roamed the city streets, listened to lectures, and in the evenings attended the Sema ceremony.

A group of forty Dervishes stands along the perimeter of a circular court. They stand in attention with arms crossed over their chest. They are wearing white robes — symbolizing their ego’s shrouds, and black hats — symbolizing their ego’s tombstones. It’s the center stage of an auditorium, resembling an ice hockey rink. A crowd of Sufi devotees and spectators is silent as a live band plays traditional Mevlevi music. One by one, the Dervishes step into the court in a slow counterclockwise swirling motion. Their arms raised open, holding the right palm upward toward the sky and the left palm down toward the earth. The dancers don’t do much but spin around at a fixed speed; their skirts open up like flower petals, their heads tilted to the right. The dancer’s skirts change colors as the stage lights alternate from white to green, blue, and red. Everything is turning in the universe. The world turns, the sun turns, the human blood under the skin turns, and so do the Dervish dancers. It’s a dance ceremony in honor of their great teacher, Rumi, but it’s much more than just a dance.

There is a growing body of research and interest in the relationship between trauma and physical ailments such as cancer and ALS. Yet, the emotions’ physiological impact is still far from being fully appreciated. The argument is pretty straightforward — when we shut down emotions, we also affect our immune system and nervous system. Thus, the repression of emotions, which served us well as a survival mechanism, becomes the root cause of our bodily illness.

That year I watched the dervishes dance, I was surprised to be diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was 54, relatively young for the outburst, yet it becomes less surprising when reviewing my history. Cancer is a word that arose a sense of danger, fear, and death. Fear, in particular, is an elegant weapon. It hovered above me like a drone, engulfed my psyche with the buzzing sound of anxiety. It came just as I embarked on a new chapter of my life, recently divorced after twenty-five years of marriage, and with a growing intuition that something is missing in my healing journey. I felt I had done lots of therapy and processing from the chest up but not from the chest down.

“David,” my friend Andre, a doctor and a therapist, suggested as gently as he could: “Have you considered that the cause of the cancer is your deeply-rooted anger that had no healthy outlet?” It was upsetting to hear, but the truth stings. The somatic component of my healing was missing. I decided to reconnect with yoga and dance, two disciplines I knew well from my teen years. In the words of Martha Graham, “the body says what words cannot.”

I had two Focal Laser Ablation procedures to remove the cancer cells, one time in New York and the second time in Miami, a cutting edge procedure not yet entirely accepted. I remember laying face down inside an MRI tube, fully awake, aside from local anesthesia, listening to music by Enya, focusing on my breath while my mind was holding to the images of loved ones waiting outside the room and farther away. Roni, my platoon buddy, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “it will be alright.”

The table wheeled out of the machine, and the doctor adjusted the tiny optical fiber to the tumor’s precise location. Mind you, the entire prostate is the size of an almond. The doctors wheeled the table back in, the position accuracy rechecked by the imaging machine, and if all was okay, a heatwave was sent via the fiber probe to burn the cancer cell. Back and forth, it went for a couple of hours. Every time I felt the burning sensation, I took a deeper breath. The procedure was not as difficult as the long recovery that followed. It took quite a few months, a process I sum up with one word, bloody.

On a Sunday morning, a week after the second cancer removal procedure, I went to a dance class. I was still in discomfort and low energy. There was no cheerfulness in me. I positioned myself near a window, close to the bright sun rays. My dance was pretty static. I closed my eyes and rattled my wrists, touching whatever energies I could bring up and make them move. I wanted to dance inside my body where no one would see me. On that day, that was all I had. As the weeks and months moved on, I found myself, at times, dancing with the cancer, as if it was a fellow dancer, synchronizing our steps and energies with gentleness and love. At other times, my dance mimicked a Tai Chi master, moving in slow motion, with grace and intensity as if I was trained in that martial art. The one thing I could not do was to swirl. I did not have in me the lightness it requires.

It took a few years before swirling came back, and it did. I coined a term to describe my attitude towards my ailment, “surrender, without giving up,” by which I meant, to relinquish with grace that which I couldn’t control and at the same time to move forward. The critical challenge was to stop the fight and to accept that surrender is the ultimate act of freedom. This was a key turning point in my journey. In 2017 my doctors declared me cancer-free. Around that same time, a new dance teacher came into my life, Kate Shela, and her husband, Tim Booth.

I am a practitioner of a dance methodology that calls for personal interpretation and freedom of exploration while following a teacher’s instructions. The teacher leads the class through five rhythms of energies: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness. There is no choreography, but the soundtrack builds the structure. Kate and Tim thrive in Chaos; it’s the tempo that takes me into my primal state of being and the depth of my sadness. Often in Chaos, I connect with other dancers. I let their energies take me deeper and higher all at the same time. It’s the rhythm where I find my release and freedom. Dancing opened doors to locked rooms, some I never visited or did not know existed. It’s a somatic healing experience I have yet to find anything better. As the class progresses, the other rhythms lead me back towards integration with the oneness, which makes me who I am.

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