Link to the video:

Sufism is a term that changes depending on the person who is defining it. It encompasses many identities, rituals, and practices. It also has political, social, economic, and aesthetic manifestations across the Muslim world. Broadly speaking, it is a journey of establishing a relationship with God that crosses the boundary between humans and the divine. The journey is a process of self-transformation in which the individual must annihilate their egotistical self until the only ego that remains is that of God. Only a select few become one with God. Those that do can become shaykhs (pirs), teachers, who guide others on their own spiritual journeys. Sufi shaykhs played an important role in spreading Islam.

In Sufi literature, the authors express their experience with the divine using poetic language such as symbols, metaphors, and allegories. One of the best-known works of Sufi literature is the narrative epic poem (mathnawi) The Conference of the Birds (Manteq at-Tair) by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. The poem is about birds of the world who follow the hoopoe to find their king (the Simorgh). The birds’ initial excitement dissipated once the hoopoe described the seven valleys on their journey: Quest, Love, Knowledge, Contentment, Unity, Wonder, Poverty and Annihilation. These valleys are similar to the “stations” Sufis go through on their spiritual enlightenment. Only thirty birds complete all the valleys and go to the court of the Simorgh. When they are finally admitted to the court of the Simorgh, they realize that they were the Simorgh. The end is a pun because only thirty (si) birds (morgh) complete the journey.

I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the poem and a workshop with the dancers from the production. During the performance and workshop, I intimately experienced how dance and music can convey a story—even without words. During the workshop, Wendy Jehlen, a professional dancer and Professor Asani’s former student, stressed the importance of including the narratives of people with disabilities. My friend who broke her leg showed me first hand how difficult it can be to navigate spaces that are inaccessible. She left her wheelchair in my room, so I used to highlight the experience of people with physical disabilities in the film.

The short film “The Dance of Paradise” follows the spiritual journey of a woman. In the beginning, she believes that God had abandoned her because she believed that if he loved her, then he would not have taken away her ability to walk. Then she falls out of the wheelchair. Out of despair, she prays to God to help her. She thought that God had abandoned her again, but slowly she realizes that she can sit, stand, and dance again. Each of the thirty movements shows her journey to meet the divine who helped her. Like the birds in the poem, when she reaches the court of God, she realizes that God was always inside of her. The song playing in the background is “Piano Concerto No. 21” (Elvira Madigan) by Wolfgang Mozart.

I want to thank all the dancers for sharing their talent with me; Professor Asani and Armaan Siddiqi for helping to arrange the performance and workshop; and my beautiful roommate, Hayoung Hwang, for patiently helping me with this project.