Whirling Dervish Dance Party at MASS MoCA

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams recently hosted yet another successful event in its ongoing series of ethnically-themed dance parties. The intriguingly named “Whirling Dervish Dance Party” followed in the vein of previous events organized around Haitian, Indian, Merengue, Latin, and Salsa musical stylings.

This party was similar to its predecessors in that the evening was integrated with a complete program, in this case MASS MoCA’s New Voices of Islam Weekend, which included readings, forums, film, artwork, and cuisine. It was also extremely family-oriented and enticing to several demographics of attendees. At these parties, you will see children as young as four and grandparents, patchouli-scented hippies and golf-shirted businessmen, black-sheathed Goths and hip-hop thug wannabes, “interpretive dance” free spirits and college professors. Yes, MASS MoCA is near Williams College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, but the student types are consistently outnumbered by at least 3 to 1 at these events. It is difficult to determine if this population of culture investigators is remarkable for New England, but there probably aren’t evenings as exotic as this in other parts of rural Massachusetts.

The performance segment of the show opened with the hypnotic dances of the Whirling Dervishes—followers of a mystical Islamic order established seven centuries ago. Heads tilted to one side and bodies endlessly spinning at high speed, the rapt audience watched as the 3 dervishes seemed to almost float above the floor. After several variations, the dervish group gave the stage to the Sufist devotional singing of Riffat Sultana and her accompanying musicians on guitar and tabla. During the last of Sultana’s songs, the “final” act of the night, DJ Cheb i Sabbah appeared and began providing backbeats and samples to accompany the rhythm of her songs. This San Francisco-based DJ has been performing for almost 40 years and has specialized in creating critically-acclaimed regionally-themed concept mixes and albums for at least a decade. With Sabbah’s central Asian fortified mix, the evening transformed into a full-on dance party.

What made this event even more special was that it was set up in the enormous quarter-mile-long Building 5 gallery, catered with central Asian food, outfitted with an enormous multimedia setup with slides and film of dervishes, and garnished with the paper remains of the exhibit that had previously inhabited the gallery. In some spots near the stage, the floor was almost knee-deep in letter-sized sheaves of paper. Revelers threw handfuls of the paper into the air and created gigantic piles to jump on or bury each other in—all the while dancing and spinning to the otherworldly music in an otherworldly space.