Dancing with Romani Women in India, the Disputed Birthplace of Belly Dance – ALLAF 010

Belly Dance Podcast dancing with romani women in india the disputed birthplace of belly dance

Dance Kalbelia with gypsies in Rajasthan, get your travel dance costume together, and dance in a beautiful place at sunrise. 

It’s the very first Travel-themed show of A Little Lighter! And we’re going to focus on the horrific and magical miracle that is India. And of course talk about how to go dancing with gypsies in Rajasthan. Yay!


Unpacking your bag with gratitude.


Even if we are just packing our purse or backpack just for the day, we can see everything we choose to bring as a gift and a tool. When we unpack we can experience gratitude as well.


Get close to one of your bags right now. Imagine it is a a beautiful lotus flower, petals holding precious things that make our lives lighter. Do finger ripples around it, loosening and relaxing the muscles in your hands. Add some wrist circles. If there is a zipper, open it with your hand in a beautiful position. Now as you open the bag, do some subtle head slides and let the movement slide from your head to your shoulders. Do a little shoulder shimmy with your arms encircling your bag. Look inside.


Is there something from a person or place that you love in your bag? You probably forgot it was there. Look at it with new eyes. When I first did this danceable ritual I found a handkerchief I bought in Rajasthan. How perfect for this show. We’ll dive into Rajasthan in the danceable song and damn sexy dance move.


Is there a hidden pocket in your bag that you never open? Open it. Maybe you’ll find the pair of earrings you’ve been missing or another treasure.


Now unpack your bag a little more. Take something out and smile at it. Thank it for accompanying you.


Is there anything in there that is broken, outdated or irrelevant or just needs to go? Get it out of there or put it all the stuff that needs to go in the same part of your bag so you can easily get rid of it when you return home. Life is too short to be carrying around things that are not serving us.


Possessions are just tools. Things we can leverage to enrich and grow experiences, relationships and health. Experiences and relationships and health bring long-term happiness and satisfaction.


Most possessions themselves bring very short-term happiness. The thrill wears off after we acquire something. We just end up wanting more things, and then get sad when we lose something.


So let’s honor and dance for the items we take with us on journeys big and small.


I went to study in Delhi and Pubjab when I was 20, and after that semester I returned to the US and unpacked my bags as a different person. India called me back. 3 months riding trains around the country in 2007. Zig zagging north to Dharamashala and Kashmir in 2011. All over Rajasthan in 2017. Each time I returned home I unpacked new ideas about music and dance and costumes. And food and poverty and God.



Rajasthani gypsy song – “Kalyo Kood Padyo Mela”

It starts with about 30 seconds of snake charmer taksim, which would be a lovely song for  entering a stage slowly with a veil. The rest of the song is very specific to Khalbelia and those dance moves, but I can see ATS with big skirts being really beautiful with this song. There are fun and easy-to-anticipate pauses throughout the song, where we can do dramatic things with our eyes and strike poses.


This “snake charmer” instrument is the poongi (poon-ghee). It has a reed and is played from the top like a clarinet. But the clarinet only has one reed, and the poongi has 2. And the Poongi player’s breath passes through and two chambers at once, so the harmony comes from one chamber and the drone flows through the other. The musician’s puffed out cheeks become like the bag of a bagpipe and the drone is continuous. You won’t hear them take a breath. They use circular breathing techniques.


It would be fun to include the first 30 seconds of this song with the poongi playing and then morph into another style.



There is of course huge variation in music and styles and instruments in India. But there are some elements that are more common in Indian music than music. The drone is one of these elements. And the poongi has a drone. A note that plays continuously while other notes happen around it. Like the sympathetic strings on a sitar or a hurdy gurdy that resonate on their own while other notes are played. The poongi has Arabic cousins like the mijwiz and mizmar and Turkish zurna. I’ll talk about those other double reeded drone instrument in a future show.


I couldn’t find what the lyrics mean, but it is a very common song for Khalbelia dancers to dance to this song. And it’s a great song. The women’s voices are high and thin, and it’s almost as if you can hear them smiling and sassing while they sing. And what I think is a frame drum sounds so loose and bassy. Imagine what happens to a natural skin drum head when the intense heat of day drops into dessert chill every night in a tent.


I did send a message to my Khalbelia friend and very talented dancer Sunita to see if she knew the meaning of the song, and I got this back: play recording. Isn’t she adorable? I do wish for her own sake that she could read.


Illiteracy is still very common especially in Rajasthan. That’s another reason why cell phones are amazing. People have access to information they can hear rather than read.


It seems like many of these dancers and bands they dance with practice a lot. Dancing and making music is not as much of a special occasion as it is a regular way to spend time. And maybe that’s why there are a lot of fantastic dancers and musicians in Rajasthan.


If you watch the 2 videos I have on youtube of some of my dance classes with Sunita, you will see how smoothly she transitions into the next move, and how I struggle. And in the video of the amazing Colleena Shakti dancing with a Khalbelia friend in the dessert, you can see how smoothly her friend transitions into the next move. I think a lot of times women dance together so often that they half-know what the other dancers are going to do and are ready to follow.

Interesting side note. I have been told that snake charmers in some contexts are not just entertainers, but also healers and pest removers. They treat snake bites and they are called on to remove snakes from houses. Maybe this is more of a historical situation. In India I have often found that some things still happen the way they did hundreds of years ago. Wild snapshots of anachronism.


I’ll do a show on travelling in Morocco and I’ll feature the Algerian Rai song Ya Rayah, or “Oh Immigrant.” It ends with “The heart returns to it’s creator.” The big jump into our current physical body is travel in itself! And then the energy we identify as self travels elsewhere…



Cross forward (front foot ball, back foot flat stomp), open side (front foot ball, back foot flat stomp), with side veil




You will be leading this travel step with the ball of your right foot and your right hip will follow over your right foot. Stand with both feet facing forward with soft knees, pelvis tucked, shoulders back and chest open. Energy in your hands. Good belly dance position. Place your right hand on your right hip as if you are holding a little bit of your skirt up so you don’t trip on the hem. Your left hand is up in your hair near your left eye. You can pretend your left hand is holding the edge of a scarf that is loosely covering your hair.


With your left foot flat and staying stationary, touch the ball of your right foot about 6 inches in front of your left foot. Let your right hip follow. Place the ball of your right foot back where it started about a hips width apart from your left foot. Keep your hands in the same place.


Do it a couple more times. With your left foot flat and staying stationary, touch the ball of your right foot about 6 inches in front of your left foot. Let your right hip follow. Place the ball of your right foot back where it started about a hips width apart from your left foot.


Now allow your right hip to raise a little when it comes forward. Your right hip is drawing a U toward the audience. Pop that hip a little bit when it reaches the front top of the U.


“Ball touch in front  –   Open touch side”


Right cross – touch left – right open – touch left.


Once that feels good, move forward a little each time you bring the ball of your right foot in front of your flat left foot.


This is similar to a U step I was taught in belly dance, where your hip is also drawing the letter U. This step is different because it swings. The U is wider. And with one hand holding the top of your skirt and the other hand holding the edge of a veil, it feels very different. You’ll see in the video that Sunita covers her face a little with the edge of the veil when her right opens to touch the side. You can play with this part of the move as well.


Before traveling, I got a hold of Christine Andrews of the fabulous Hamer sisters of Pittsburg. Christine studied Khalbelia in Rajasthan before. She said “ I wrote to my teacher a few weeks ago to find out if she’s in India (she travels for dance often), but haven’t heard back from her. Her name is Gulabi (stage name “Gulabo”) Sapera. She leaves in Jaipur, Rajasthan. You will find lots of info if you Google her name. She is the mother of kalbelia/Sapera dance in its current form. She’s is the most revered and well known dancer in India in this form. Please forgive me for stating the obvious-but if you go to visit her, please remember to be respectfully dressed (shoulders and legs covered and not too tight clothing). You should be able to reach her on Facebook. Her daughter “Rakhi Sapera” and son “Dino Banjara” are also on Facebook and be able to reach her thru them. Good luck and have fun!



Great. So Jaipur was backup if I could not find a Khalbelia teacher in Pushkar. I just had a feeling Pushkar was where I wanted to spend most of the trip, and I was right. I researched Colleena Shakti’s dance school in Pushkar and tried to contact them without success. Sometimes you just have to give yourself enough time and go to a place focusing on a specific request. Keep making that request to the universe.


Here is an excerpt from the piece “8 Things I Learned From Dancing With Gypsies” posted on my site.

I traveled to Rajasthan to study dance in a place where gypsy wagon wheels have been rolling for centuries. Where Rom families awoke in the dawn of their unwritten history and carried music from India to Persia and Egypt to Spain. I wanted see women spinning, floating and stomping beneath desert stars like the Kalbelia dancers in the opening scene of the film Latcho Drom. I set out for the holy city of Pushkar.

Wherever I travel, I dance.

The small Indian city on a lake welcomed me with wedding season streets of chaos. I sidestepped circles of diamond-studded women sweating and dancing to frantic drums in honor of a bride and groom. I waited for the cacophony of horn and organ wedding bands to pass, and I asked locals how to get to Colleena Shakti’s School of Dance. I was pointed to the inside of the Old Ranji Temple, and then a blue door suspended above a back corner. Classes were in session, and I couldn’t be more excited to see the dance space.

Upon entering the blue doors, I was greeted by the smell of fresh marigolds. The cool marble floor soothed my feet. The dance class schedule said exactly what I wanted: Kalbelia classes with Raki Sapera were Monday-Saturday at 2:30pm. Tribal Fusion Belly Dance class with the amazing Colleena Shakti would be on Thursday at 4pm.

Belly dance has been my bridge to the dance world since I started studying in Ithaca, New York with June Seaney in 2000. I am always hungry to learn more from masters like Colleena and combine what I learn with other dance forms like Kalbelia. I am forever grateful for what I learned from my teachers in Pushkar. Find out the 8 lessons I learned from Dancing with gypsies in Pushkar. You can search for it on my site or check out the show notes for the link.




Nutritional yeast. It has this MSG quality where you can sprinkle it on something bland and suddenly it tastes great. It has a cheesy, nutty flavor and a golden color. When we traveled to Mexico recently I brought a little shaker of Parma! Vegan Parmesan and sprinkled it on rice, leftovers, pasta, greens. That stuff is amazing. It’s just nutritional yeast, walnuts, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds and sea salt.


Nutritional yeast, aka “nooch” is great on popcorn, blanched greens, broccoli. It is the secret ingredient in many vegan cheesy sauces along with cashews and tofu. Nutritional yeast is a little processed. According to Wikipedia it is grown on glucose from sugarcane or beet molasses and then harvested and dried. But unlike other processed foods, it has 1 or 2 ingredients and is not an addictive substance.


If you are vegan, get the nutritional yeast fortified with B12. Vitamin D and B12 are the only nutrients we don’t get from plant foods without fortification.

Gluten-Free Macaroni Salad with Zucchini


It’s a special treat to have nutritional yeast, and it travels really well. It won’t melt in the heat or go bad, and it adds a lot of flavor. As with any food you carry with you when travelling in warmer climates, keep it sealed and protected against ants, mice, roaches, etc. I’ve had roaches in my bags in India and Thailand before. They don’t mind being zipped up and going with you, so look out!


There’s a great article on my site titled “Want to Know How to Eat Vegan in India? Read This First.” You might be surprised what I write in there.


Want to Know How to Eat Vegan in India? Read This First.



Find a travel costume and wear it! Something compact that does not show wrinkles or stains. I have a Rajasthani choli that I bought in Pushkar that goes with me almost everywhere. It is actually clothing for nomads so it works great. My sturdy black lace skirt I’ve mentioned in other shows goes everywhere with me. And that outfit looks normal and appropriate in most cultural contexts when I put another shirt over my choli. And it’s tiny, so it fits in my backpack when I’m traveling light. Your travel costume will make the world a stage! Find it.




Dance at dawn in a beautiful place. If you schedule this when you travel it is more likely to happen. I pick a morning and let the people I am traveling with know I’ll be out before dawn and dancing at sunrise.


Pack a small speaker ipod and auxillary cord. Make sure they are charged. Pack your travel costume.


When you get to your destination, scout out the spot. Where will it feel good to dance at dawn? Pack a bag before going to sleep the night before and set your alarm.


The energy before dawn is magical. And when you make it a habit to dance at dawn when you wake up in a beautiful place, you will feel good and look goddess for sure. Rooftops in India and Morocco, beaches all over the world, in front of gorgeous monuments an ancient theaters.


The dawn invites us to perform. Dance for the sun.



At a museum in Rajasthan, a placard read: “Durga always wins.” That really struck me.


Up until that moment, I was ok with thinking of women as victims. As being beat down and losing time after time. But that’s just not true. It definitely happens, but that is not the overarching truth I choose to see in the world. We frame truth. If we are looking, we choose what to frame. There are infinite truths too vast for our human minds to comprehend. And every time something happens, something else happens as a result of that. Ripples.


Durga is a goddess in India. A concept. She is the divine feminine in all of us.


I now embrace that Durga always wins.


The divine feminine in us

always recovers.

We cannot be stopped
Tongue hanging

Eyes wild with anger

Suddenly returning to the wisdom

of and old soul

with beeswax on her lips.

Breath sweetened by anise.

Coal accentuating the unique shape of her eyes.

Vermillion in her hair.

Gold and silver circling her skin.

A woman who damn well knows what she is talking about.

How do we get what we want?

We must be clever at all times.


We choose to dance

To emit rays of light

To be unstoppable for ourselves

And brew the medicine of the divine feminine

That has and always will

Dance in the temples we call I


The Ultimate Power of Femininity (Durga) Always Wins