Insight into Khaita Joyful Dances

Adriana Dal Borgo recounts the origins of the Joyful Dances and how they can lead us, step by step, to bring presence and harmony into our daily lives. 

The birth and development of the Khaita project corresponds to a phase in which the International Dzogchen Community sought greater integration with the local area, represented by the celebrations on the occasion of Merigar’s 30th anniversary in 2011. It was the first time that ‘our’ activities were held not only in the Association’s facilities but also in the public squares of the surrounding villages. Demonstrations of Vajra Dance and Yantra Yoga, evenings with dance performances, singing and concerts performed by Community artists from all over the world impressed the local people, who were surprised that Buddhists or “Tibetans”, as they called us, knew how to do anything other than meditate…. 

And it is precisely sound, in the form of singing, and movement, with dance, that are the characteristics of Khaita – Harmony in Space: a project created by Dzogchen Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and developed with the collaboration of people in the Community from around the world.

Adriana Dal Borgo and other Tibetan Modern Dancers at the Adeje Perfomance
Photo by Miguel Ferrada Gutiérrez

The project consists of singing and dancing together a selection of about 400 songs and 250 dances. They use forms and content from Tibetan culture but are then expressed with choreography developed by dancers from different cultural backgrounds, thus taking on a cross-cultural character.  

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu devoted the last years of his life to perfecting and disseminating this Teaching, the value of which, as well as the different possibilities of application, is gradually revealed, like the many facets of a diamond.

A key word in the project is “harmony”, represented by the Tibetan word Khaita: ‘ta‘ translates as harmony but also has the semantic meaning of melody, while ‘kha‘ means space.

Countless scientific studies demonstrate the health benefits of singing and dancing, activities that involve harmonizing both the physical body and the mind with each other.  

Singing stimulates the production of immunoglobulins, dopamine, melatonin and endorphins. In this way it strengthens the immune system, is relaxing, analgesic, and aids memory and the ability to concentrate.

Dancing increases proprioceptive awareness, stimulates the circulatory and respiratory systems, increases neuromuscular efficiency and coordination, improves balance helping to prevent injuries and falls, stimulates memory, and prevents the onset of some degenerative diseases.

Dancing together also promotes social interaction. 

One example among many: a recent study, published in the Neuroscience journal, showed that dancing, more than other physical activities, improves mental and cognitive health. Research results indicated improvements in emotional well-being, depressive states, motivation, and cognitive functions such as memory, in all age groups and even in individuals with chronic diseases.

The originality of the Khaita project, however, lies in its use of song and dance as a meditative practice through training in presence and mindfulness, from which a naturally joyful condition arises. In fact, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu chose the name “Khaita Joyful Dances” in which the word “joy” refers to the arising of a condition of relaxation and deep harmony, independent of short-lived situations and circumstances.  To find or rediscover a stable condition of joy, we must look within ourselves instead of chasing external results that bring only temporary benefits. The function of Khaita is similar to that of the mirror, a tool that allows us to observe ourselves and a symbol frequently used by the Master to show us how to discover the potential of our true nature. 

The term ‘harmony-melody’ thus takes on a deep meaning, related to the principle of evolution:

“We live on this planet with many other persons. Evolution means to develop the understanding of one’s own nature without being too much conditioned by dualistic vision. In this way we shall become very good living examples for society (..) A lot of people speak about peace (…) but how can we have peace in the world if we do not open up and we only think in terms of “me” or “ us” or we always wish to change something or someone? To have peace, we need evolution and this must develop in the condition of every single person.” Namkhai Norbu “Evolution and our responsibility to all sentient beings” in The Mirror No. 123 

The essence of Dzogchen practice is to dwell in contemplation in every moment, in every aspect of our existence, consisting of the physical body, voice or energy and mind. 

Leading us in the same direction is the etymological origin of the word joy, from the Latin word gaudio. We read in the Encyclopedia Treccani: Intense joy, especially of a spiritual or religious nature.  

It is not easy to achieve this goal. It cannot be achieved through reasoning or analysis by following the movements of the mind, but only by training in presence.

When we act “blindly” by chasing thoughts or on the wave of emotions, we can be the cause of confusion, tension and problems for ourselves and others. Instead, training in presence means learning not to be conditioned by it, to act with “clarity”.

Movement is part of our condition, our life, from the moment we are born: the cells of our body are constantly regenerating. Not only the physical body is in movement and transformation but also the emotions and thoughts that continually arise. 

A method that gives us the tools to bring presence into movement, thus into every single moment of our lives, can be considered like a jewel! Khaita gives us the tools for this training. 

At first, especially while we are learning, we have to work hard to understand how to do the steps, to move our arms, to orient ourselves to new movements, but as we become more familiar with the dances, we can simply be present and relaxed in the movement and music. Gradually, presence will extend to all moments of our life until there is no separation between it and the moment of practice or meditation. Life becomes a dance.

 “Milarepa said every movement is yantra [yoga]. I say that every movement is dance.” Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzamling Gar 2013. 

Music is sound plus rhythm.  Knowing how to recognize and follow a rhythm is essential: rhythm creates a melody that accompanies the voice in singing and guides the steps and movements in dancing; it anchors our mind and compels us, lest we get out of the timing, to be attentive and not distracted. To stay in step with the rhythm, the mind can no longer digress by getting lost in memories of past situations or expectations of the future but has to remain in the present. 

And it is this training that will lead us, step by step, to bring presence and harmony into our daily lives. We will cope more appropriately with difficult situations, we will know how to release tension, we will be more relaxed and aware, and our lives will be easier and more joyful. 

By regaining inner harmony, dance movements become softer, relaxed, precise. Through melody we tune in and resonate as a group. Through choreography that requires synchronized movements and gestures, we develop awareness of each other, of us, and of the space around us. Many Khaita dances are performed in a circle, a very interesting and meaningful figure. To create a circle requires the contribution of each dancer: we must all be careful to keep the same distance from each other and a constant distance from the center. We must also keep the circle in the center of the space in which we dance. The circle arises from everyone’s awareness and collaboration.  Khaita is therefore also collaboration, respect, and group harmony.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu was a scholar and a great expert in his native culture. In Khaita he transferred some pearls of his knowledge: in the choice of songs and in the extensive commentaries on the lyrics, which are rich in insights and connections to various fields of culture (history, geography, art, etc.). It is interesting to see how he chose to organize the song collections, following the principles of Tibetan astrology of the elements.

This is the other motive behind the Khaita project: supporting Tibetan language and culture, which is now in danger of extinction. 

Each individual culture is unique and valuable, so why is Tibetan culture so important?

Those who follow a Buddhist tradition know that the complete collection of all the Buddha’s teachings have come down to us in Tibetan, the language into which they were translated from Sanskrit thanks to the work of ancient scholars: if knowledge of this language disappeared, we would lose the possibility of direct access to the precious original texts.

A language is also an expression and vehicle of the culture from which it came. The civilization of the Tibetan plateau possesses thousands of years of profound knowledge in many fields of learning, which has remained unaltered due to its isolation brought about by particular geographical conditions. This heritage also comes to us through the songs and dances selected in the Khaita collections. From the lyrics of the songs we thus discover that Tibetan culture is the custodian of universal values that are precious to all humanity: they speak to us of peace, love for one’s country, history and tradition, respect for the environment, cooperation, tolerance. They show us a special understanding of man, always seen as an individual in relation to his or her environment, the universe, and the divine. A profound understanding that can only enrich our way of being in the world.

All the observations described so far are summarized in the symbol of Khaita: 

The infinite knot, a line without interruption of continuity, without corners and golden like sunlight, harmoniously connects all points of the earth. The knot is inscribed in a circle representing our planet and all people. Similarly, the notes of music and melody travel as an uninterrupted flow of energy and love, a common universal language, carrying a message of peace and evolution. 

Because of its versatility and variety of rhythms, melodies and choreography, there are several areas and fields of application for Khaita. Let’s look at some of the projects that are taking place at this time.

In the project “We Are One”, organized by ASIA – Association for International Solidarity in Asia – and funded by the Italian Buddhist Union, Joyful Dances are one of the activities aimed at children and teachers in some schools in Rome and the Mt. Amiata area.  The project aims to help create a more inclusive society that is aware of the web of connections that exist between all living things, to encourage more responsible behavior, and to develop a more empathetic and connected self with others and the environment.

Khaita Joyful Dances were the subject of a dissertation for a PhD at the University of Salzburg in the Department of Music and Dance Studies. An excerpt from the thesis will soon be published by Shang Shung Publishing House. The text provides a broad overview of the origin and development of Khaita as well as insights into its principles; it also presents interesting academic research.

In Poland, Khaita is one of the subjects in the Certified School for Coaches and the Self-Development Course (open self-development course) at the ICC (International Coaching Community), as it helps develop so-called soft skills, emotional skills such as self-control, self-awareness, social skills, and empathy. 

Also in Poland, Khaita is one of the activities of Values Schools, a 3-year project aimed at principals and teachers in public schools to develop teachers’ awareness of how to work in different dimensions in daily life. The Dances have also been offered to students as an open activity on particular dates in the school curriculum.

Although practiced by non-professional dancers, Joyful Dances have always attracted significant interest wherever they have been presented. Thus, we have been invited to participate in various performances, sometimes to present the cultural aspect, “Tibetan-ness”, sometimes to share the cross-cultural approach and the message of harmony, cooperation and joy they convey.

The best way to understand  Khaita is to experience it firsthand. One convenient option is Exploring Khaita, an online program that offers weekly classes to learn the dances and one seminar per month that covers topics such as benefits according to medicine, aspects of Tibetan culture, singing and the healing power of sound, and Khaita and mindfulness.

In our online platforms you can find entire collections of songs with all the lyrics, both in the original language and in drajyor, a phonetic transcription system that makes it easy to read the transcription from Tibetan and be able to sing along. You can also find their translations and comments by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. 

In our YouTube channel you will also find tutorials and pre-recorded lessons, demonstration videos of the dances and performances, and various presentation videos. Among many, I recommend watching this one.

We are waiting for you to dance together!!!

Adriana Dal Borgo

Links to our platforms and available materials


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