Whirling Away Stereotypes

First Female Sufi Dancer in Egypt
Hana Moustafa, 35, performs at a floating restaurant in Cairo’s upscale neighbourhood of Maadi on February 13, 2021. (By Menna A. Farouk)

The sounds of music were loud in a dinner hall inside one of the floating restaurants in Cairo’s upscale neighbourhood of Maadi. 

Outside the hall, Hanaa Moustafa, 35, was preparing to enter and perform as the first Sufi whirling dancer in Egypt.

“I feel really spiritual when I dance,” Moustafa told Majalla before making her three performances at the restaurants.

Hanaa works every day until the early hours of the next morning and participates in parties and events. 

“I entered the world of tanoura (Sufi whirling) through folklore, as my mother used to work in costumes in the balloon theater, and I used to go with her to the theater. So, I loved the art of folklore,” she said.

Moustafa joined a folklore troupe when she was six years old and took part in many international festivals as a folk dancer. 

“Then, I met my husband who is a professional tanoura dancer and he trained me and was my main motivation,” Hanaarevealed.

Moustafa was also provoked by the popular idea that a girl dancing tanoura is unlikely, which prompted her to become professional in this art.

The middle-aged dancer received rejection from her colleagues in the folklore troupe as their comment was always “how can a girl dance the tanoura?”

“But my reply was that if a man did it a woman could do it as well because tanoura is not restricted to a certain gender. If we look at belly dancing for example, we will find that most belly dancing trainers are men,” she said.

Her husband trained her in tanoura for one month and then she started to take part in shows.


Tanoura is a dance of mystical origins and is popular among Arabs and foreigners alike. It is a rhythmic dance that is collectively performed in circular motions, which stems from Sufi Islamic philosophy. 

The dance’s performers see that the movement in the universe starts from a point and ends at the same point, and therefore they reflect this concept in their dance. Their movements come in circular motion, as if they draw with them halos that reinforce their beliefs, spinning and spinning as if they were the planets swimming in space.

This dance first originated in Turkey in the thirteenth century while some studies indicate that Turkish philosopher and poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi was the first to introduce the Dervish or Mevlevi dance, which is the spiritual circular dance from which the tanoura dance was derived.

Often the dance is accompanied by prayers and praise of God and performers whirl not just for the sake of whirling, but because they want to reach a sublime stage of spiritual clarity.


Moustafa is also the only female trainer of tanoura dancing in Egypt. She has also participated in a number of international festivals and has traveled to a number of countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Emirates.

When she performed in Turkey, which is the origin of the art of tanoura, she received wide accolades from the audience.

Moustafa has trained many female foreign dancers in tanouraand she believes that women are not practicing this kind of art because they think they will be not able to bear the vertigo.

“Sufi whirling is an exhausting dance, but the most difficult thing about it is the vertigo. But by doing certain practices that break the dizziness, any woman can perform well,” she said. 

According to the 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, Egypt ranks low in gender equity compared to other countries worldwide.  

The Index, which measures disparities between men and women across countries, ranked Egypt at 136 out of 145 countries worldwide. It added that women have significantly lower participation in the labor force than men (26% vs 79%).

“Women are still underrepresented in many fields and the increase of their representation in any field would not only benefit those women socially and economically but also would benefit the whole society,” Randa Fakhr El-Deen, a women’s rights activist and executive director of the NGOs’ Union on Harmful Practices Against Women, told Majalla.

She added that having those women fighting for a space besides men in art and workplaces in general would gradually break deeply-rooted misconceptions and social stereotypes as well as increase women’s representation in different walks of life.