8 Things I Learned From Dancing With Gypsies / Roma / Kalbelia
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, and I believe these eight dance lessons will be invaluable for many of us.
#1: In dance class we can learn without words. Repetition and modeling have been a source of dance learning throughout history. Raki rarely spoke during class. Even if Raki she did not speak at all, I would have understood her dance class perfectly. No time was spent explaining. We either danced or we paused and rested while drinking water, and it was easy to maintain focus when there was little need to talk.
#2: Get the move first, and then think about the rhythm For each new move, Raki danced simply and slowly several times with music playing. She would start by stomping with one foot and lifting her skirt up slightly on one side. We followed. Then she would pause to do two hand movements slowly, pressing the world out with her palms and then fanning her fingers into flowers. When we became comfortable with the hands, she added the feet. We would dance until the hands and feet moved together without struggling. It was then that Raki would start dancing in place with the rhythm of the music. Then Raki would signal for us to move forward and back as a group dancing that move. It felt so natural.
#3: Try to hear rhythm the way others hear it when you dance together.
Raki never counted out loud. She danced at different speeds, responding to phrases of music that were not 4/4 or any measure I was familiar with. She taught me another way to hear the music. Sometimes Raki would even step out of the room when we were dancing in a circle, and we would continue to move as if in a trance and find our own rhythm as a group. There are infinite ways to hear the same piece of music, and infinite ways to dance to it as well.
#4: Spin steadily with a grounded foot. Raki could spin flawlessly for measures and measures of music each time the song was nearing the end. I watched her feet eagerly, wanting to do the same. She taught us how to spin: Ground yourself with one heel, turning from that point. Use your other foot to push you around, touching the ground only 2-3 times each turn. Choose a spot for your eyes to return to each turn, and then add your arms. If you lose the spot, you will get dizzy. A beautiful French woman with one long feather earing caught my eye at the Shakti Dance School. We quickly became friends, and felt drawn to each other. “I have the phone number for another gypsy woman,” she said. “She will come to our hotel to teach us to dance.” This is how I met my second dance teacher, the magnetic Sunita Supera. She had much to teach me as well.
#5: You can dance to any music In our first class I could not get Sunita’s music to play on my speaker, so I found other Kalbelia music and put it on. It was no problem for her. Sunita said, “I can dance any music.” That made me confident that I could use what she taught me in whenever I feel it, regardless of the genre of music or whether music happens as planned.
#6: Dance like you are beautiful, always. It is difficult to stop watching Sunita when she is dancing. Her confidence enhances her beauty, and she made me realize that I enjoy watching dancers more when they are in touch with their own beauty. This over-powers lip-biting concentration, fearful eyes, and other less-attractive energy that we show when we forget how beautiful we are.
#7: Dance like your audience is always right across from you Each class I felt like Sunita and I were performing together. Even when it was just the two of us. This made me pay attention more deeply. And I enjoyed the classes more, feeling as if we were not rehearsing but instead dancing to be in that very moment.
#8: If you see something you like in another dance, make it your own. Sometimes Sunita would fuse moves I learned in belly dance class with Kalbelia, and I would get very excited. “You see, you like it, you can do it,” she said. So much time has been wasted on claiming music and movements for one group and attempting to separate others from it. Purity is a matter of perspective, and it is a concept that can unite and divide. I choose unity. I choose to dance.