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Whirling beyond the pale

Quite possibly nobody has ever practised Sufi whirling so near the flashing, beeping heart of Mammon, in such close proximity to a cash machine. And equally possibly it will be a long time before anyone does so again. For the hilarious yet somewhat sobering experience of dancing like a dervish in the glassy London premises of an international media corporation has amply demonstrated that the working world is not quite ready for whirling. But at least the incident has finally brought forth a new blog.

A recent first-ever UK performance of whirling, to open an exhibition of my mandalas at Moving Arts Base in Islington, London, had me casting around for a space in which to do a spot of practice. I was pleasantly surprised when the facilities team of the building in which I sometimes work readily granted me permission to whirl after hours on the third-floor mezzanine, close to where the ATM does a steady trade.

When the working day was safely done, I went to the Ladies and metamorphosed into a flaming red and silver-bedecked whirling dervish, then strolled out onto the third floor mezzanine and began to whirl. With spectacular English cool, the trickle of workers who happened to need to use the ATM carefully navigated their way to the machine past my somewhat dramatic and rapidly spinning presence, without looking in my direction at all. And scurried off again, as far as I could tell, without a backward glance.

When I finally stopped (it turned out to be a magnificent space in which to whirl), I bowed down in the traditional way and then sat, eyes closed, on the floor for several minutes. My silent sitting was soon disturbed by the approach of two men in black suits asking if I was OK. On hearing that I felt absolutely fine, they reported that a number of people had seen me and were worried about me. Failing to grasp that it was not just the fact that I was now sitting with my eyes closed near the ATM, but the whole of my performance that had been troubling people, I reassured the security men that I always finished my dance in this manner, and that I felt very well indeed. Looking quite scared, they backed off hurriedly.

The next evening, after about 20 minutes of blissful and peaceful whirling, I suddenly heard a loud 'Excuse me' booming forth from somewhere in the upper stories of the building’s inner atrium. I dutifully stopped and looked up to see that my interlocutor was a large man in a green jumper, although several other people, leaning over balconies on various floors, were gawping curiously at the exchange to come. 'Can I ask you what you are doing?' he hollered down to me.

I was tempted to reply that I was casting a spell on the ATM so that it would shortly empty its contents into my cleverly adapted skirt, whereupon I would run away with all the cash, but I said simply that I was practising some dancing for a performance I would soon be giving. 'Only, people saw you last night, too, and we was wondering what you was doing,' he continued, clearly unconvinced by my answer. I told him I'd been given official permission to do this and if it was OK with him I would now continue.

Five minutes later, I heard footsteps heading my way, then another peremptory 'Excuse me', and saw another man in a black suit trying to attract my attention. I stopped and he, too, asked: 'What are you doing?' I again said I was practising, citing the name of the Facilities manager who had given the go-ahead for my unusual rehearsal space, in an attempt to reassure him. 'Only, people saw you last night, too, and they were all asking what you were doing,' he said, repetitively.

The record seemed completely stuck just there. What on earth could a woman be doing, spinning round in small circles in an insanely bright red costume on the third floor of their office building, a little too close to the ATM for comfort? The enquiry couldn't go any deeper than this. It was such an indigestible fact that there seemed no room at all for any meaningful further investigation – what was this dance? was it difficult/enjoyable to do? where did I learn it? and so on, seemed beyond the pale.

I said that I really didn't mean to offend anyone and I hoped I could now continue. The black suit fell silent and walked off, visibly non-plussed.

I strongly suspect that all those so troubled by my presence, or so concerned for my welfare, had one idea at the back of their minds – that I was a possibly dangerously deranged individual who was in some way threatening the nice orderly ordinariness of their office space. Either that, or my whirling was some elaborate ploy to enable me to steal their cash card details.

No one seemed to have got as far as noticing that what I was doing was actually quite skillful and can be very enjoyable to watch. All were apparently stuck at the level of an anomalous activity that didn't fit into any of their boxes.

On the third evening of my whirling presence after hours, the process was again repeated, with a number of nervous-looking souls scuttling up to use the ATM before disappearing rapidly. Soon enough, I sensed I was about to be accosted once more. Just when I had reached something approaching cruising speed, so was spinning too fast to see anything at all clearly, and generating a fair amount of noise from the flapping of my skirt, I thought I glimpsed an approaching black suit – a female one this time – and heard a rather quiet ‘excuse me’.

As I was so much in my stride, however, I decided to feign unawareness and carry on whirling. If she really wanted to speak to me, she could shout louder. She didn’t – I realised after a moment that she had quietly retreated, so I ended my whirling in peace, with a deep bow and a time spent sitting silently with my eyes closed. After a few minutes of this, however, I felt someone near me, heard the now-familiar ‘Excuse me, are you OK? and opened my eyes to see a black suit squatting next to me.

‘Yes, I’m very well, thank you. Why, shouldn’t I be?’

‘Er, no, it’s just that...’

‘It’s just that everyone’s been coming up to you as they leave the building to tell you there’s a mad woman doing something weird by the cash machine?’

‘Well, yes,’ he admitted. ‘And my colleague came and spoke to you, and...’

I conceded that I thought maybe someone had come but I couldn’t be quite sure, as I was turning so fast, then assured the suit that I really wasn’t all that mad, and that I was finding it funny how scared of me people seemed to be. We parted on quite good terms, having agreed I should warn the security desk before the next evening’s session. So I did. And that evening, I was left in peace, despite a fairly constant traffic of visitors to the cash machine, all of whom continued to give me a wide berth, ignoring me scrupulously as they held conversations on their mobiles by the ATM or chatted with each other.

The same was true the evening after that. I even thought once I may just possibly have heard a quiet wolf whistle, though perhaps it wasn’t intended for me at all. On the last evening of my little experiment, I whirled away undisturbed, until I became aware of a camera flashing somewhere in the vicinity. A few moments later, a photographer came into view, shooting flashes off in an uninhibited fashion, including directly into my face. He never attempted to communicate with me at all – just stole away with his amusing trophy of shots of the mad whirling woman by the ATM.

I hope he enjoys them as much as I have enjoyed whirling in the unexpectedly wonderful whirling space that the 3rd floor mezzanine turned out to be. But I doubt I’ll be receiving any requests for an encore...

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