An Interview with Stoffelina Verdonk

“I will dance after my death!”

Stoffelina in the Dzamling Gar gönpa. Photo by Carlos García.

Editor’s Note:
This interview with Stoffelina Verdonk was conducted on 18th November 2021 as part of my undergoing PhD research project on Khaita – Joyful Dances. I shortened and edited it for readability yet tried to keep her words as authentic as possible. I originally never intended to publish it outside the context of my thesis. Stoffelina and her sister Janna sadly died in a car accident on 21st July 2022. For this reason, I hope this interview will help us to remember her. Stoffelina was a great inspiration not only to me but to so many. Her kindness, joyfulness and tireless dedication to the Dzogchen community will not be forgotten. I want to thank her for everything she has done for us. (Eva Leick) 

Eva: Stoffelina, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’m very happy to hear your insights into Khaita. Let’s start. I know your name, you are Stoffelina. Can I ask how old you are and what your nationality is? 

Stoffelina: Yes, you can. I’m still 64. I’m from Holland, Netherlands, from Amsterdam. At this moment, I’m a resident in France.

Eva: I know that you are always traveling. You’re always in many places at the same time. How do you feel about the description ‘citizen of the world’? Do you sometimes feel like that?

Stoffelina: Yes, very much, because as a matter fact, I’m not sure if I really have a real home in that sense. I have a place here. I have a place there. I’m here and I’m there but it’s true that I feel very comfortable with the idea that I’m ‘a citizen of the world’. And I think very deep, I see it really like that.

Eva: And what is the reason for your travels?

Stoffelina: Most of the time it’s because I’m going to teach somewhere and it depends on what I’m teaching <laughs>. I trained as a very contemporary dancer a long time ago and for that reason, I teach movement. And then Vajra Dance, Khaita, meditation. I’m teaching. 

Eva: Could you tell me about the first time you encountered Khaita?

Stoffelina: The very first time? I think it was in Callao Salvaje [Tenerife] in 2011 or 12. Really in the beginning. I did not participate in the North [of Tenerife in the initial Khaita sessions]. This is the only time when I was later than the beginning. But from the beginning, when it was out of the North, I was dancing with everyone. And for sure Rinpoche was there sitting and watching and singing and being totally amazed.

Eva: Were you amazed right from the beginning?

Stoffelina: Yes. Not by the fact that Rinpoche is proposing things, because he’s a great master and completely with his students, looking at their needs and understanding – also what we need and the world needs et cetera, but amazed about the simplicity of the dances at that time. That simplicity was very difficult for me <laughs>. Yes. It was very difficult. So this for a modern dancer, “oh my god, what am I doing?”

Eva: How does your dancing, your dance career, your dance background and education influence Khaita?

Stoffelina: Especially in the beginning, I think I was kind of in shock. Because the simpleness of this thing. I almost felt embarrassed. And I was wondering if everyone could see me doing it and what happened to Stoffelina <laughs>. But on another level, I think straight from the beginning, I could see something that Rinpoche was doing. That’s why I kept on doing it. It corresponded to my vision that movement, and then specifically dance, has no age, no gender, no social class. And in my way of performing and presenting modern dance, all these things I did, I’ve always worked with any kind of person, mentally handicapped persons, physically handicapped persons, blind people, deaf people, old people, professional people…My specialty in dance school was to be able to move a hundred percent synchronized with someone, without planning, without choreography. So really developing the energy of the movement and the direction, how it goes from moment to moment. So that kind of connection of understanding or intelligence. You understand? Synchronous movement, without choreography. So how do you do that? That was my question. And I’ve been doing a lot of experiments in that because it gives and always has been given me something very strong, this contact between people. So in one way, even if it [Khaita] was choreographed, let’s see all the different people in this situation doing even the most simple movement. I cannot say I understood it intellectually, but I kind of understood in a way that I wanted to participate or adhere or I was happy. Long phrase to say this was happening.

Eva: Now [November 2021] we’ve celebrated 10 years of Khaita. For you personally, how did the practice develop? 

Stoffelina: The basic more evident development or evolution of Khaita is that in the beginning probably because there were not so many people who were really familiar with it, it took much more time and like bumps and discoordination between people to dance together. And then seeing that through time this became easier when there are more people knowing. Then people can go more easily in the flow without knowing already. This has also been a very specific part of the beginning of the teachings with Rinpoche and Khaita. This is quite particular in any dance form. You used to throw yourself in and find out. When I jump to the end of the 10 years, it is WOW. Let’s call it mind blowing <laughs>. 

Stoffelina at Dzamling Gar. Photo by Gisela Martinez.

Eva: You are also involved in teaching a Khaita group in France. Could you tell me about your teaching experiences with this group? Have you observed any effect that the Khaita practice has on the group?

Stoffelina: On the dance level, I’m quite amazed. So you understand there’s kind of lots of amazements coming <laughs>. I have a group but because of the COVID it went really down to a kind pit core of five ladies and they are all over 55. One is 94. And what I think is amazing is the energy aspect. They all dance and I’ve been teaching them and explaining in a very light way. The Kordros [circle dances] are like…how could I call it? Like an engine? The energy, they are really connected in the dance. Really strong. And I will say I’m quite proud of them. They really amaze me because they really connect in the dance. Outside the dance, unfortunately in this spirit of COVID, the separation happens and there are conflicts between this very small group. But as soon as we dance: complete harmony and listening and dynamics and connecting and so alive and joyful. And then when we stop, the after-feeling is still there. Then when we get into the intellect, separation happens again and I try to bring it back. I bring everything back to the dance.

And also everything we say in Khaita about the culture, about our life in the place. So that for them in France, I always say “you are part of the whole world from the beginning”. So for them, that was a kind of funny idea <laughs>. But I always say we are very close to Montpellier, 100 kilometers. They are dancing there. And Marseille, and then also in Paris and also in Berlin. And then also in Singapore. “Where is that?” <laughs> So the global thing, that they are part of a world Khaita movement. I’ve always been saying this. And then differences in the beginning I solve with doing little performances because doing something as a group is very useful. In the courses we also have some knitting part, tea, cookies. And also going to dance outside, having picnics, like outings. I think I’m quite good with talk – this kind of nice talk. 

Eva: In your opinion, why do you think Khaita is special?  

Stoffelina: I think the fact that we are dancing together is more than important. It sounds maybe crazy, but I think it is a big secret in there. And also a reason why Chögyal Namkhai Norbu not only proposes dance and modern dance and artistic expression, even if he really likes, but as a form of evolution, the importance to put ourself, in this case, in circle together and see what’s going to happen <laughs>. You are not dancing alone and you have to deal with something maybe you don’t like at all. You do the same movement and sometimes you bump together and it hurts. So you better run a little bit more to the left. And then the amazing thing about these dances is at one moment in the end – I exaggerate, but I have personally very often had this experience –  that these kind of things resolve or harmonize. So then we get to the meaning of Khaita and harmony in space. At one moment in the dance, it is just one movement, one rhythm, one sound and people smile. I think that even if the dances are a little bit complicated sometimes, I feel that the value of it is so close to human nature and very simple. Very simple. It’s very close to our nature, for everyone. Not only for Dzogchen practitioners or elite performers who are all great or for only for small children. I feel it much wider. I also perceive my Master like this, so profound and simple at the same time. So full of wisdom and great vision and understanding nature.

And I say one more thing: I had very big grieving in my life. The experience of being very sad, I think you call it grief. And then dancing with other people, to be able to be in that kind of situation to experience joy at the same time, is amazing. So for me, the value of really experiencing joy, when everything goes well is fantastic. When things go medium, it’s fantastic. But if it’s really…joy is there. It’s just there. Then it has very big value for coming out of suffering. So you can call it anyone’s teaching, Buddha’s teaching, Rinpoche’s teaching. It’s a teaching also of, how you call it, primitive structure of how groups of people support each other to live difficult things. I have been really experiencing it just through the dance. It’s like the sorrow is kind of carried or dissolved or just circling. It’s not that it isn’t there anymore, but it’s kind of lifted up through the journey. So I think it’s very great, the Khaita. Teaching or learning from each other or helping each other, not by words or holding your hands but by passing on movement and from here to there and moving in space, harmony in space. It’s very important.

Eva: Beautifully described. Let me jump to another topic. Why do you think that supporting Tibetan through the Tibetan artists, through the dances, through the videos that we use in Khaita was so important to Rinpoche?

Stoffelina: Oh, because he understands sound and music. The importance of sound and of human beings and their nature. So this is a very deep understanding. But also how he evolved as a miraculous beautiful human being has gone through the Tibetan culture and specifically through this Buddhist teachings and Dzogchen teachings in which sound is the base of all manifestation. This is something we all have in common. We use sound and we all have a body and we all move. And the source of the Dzogchen teachings, he got it also through Tibetan language. So the language is very important. But beside that, I think it is in the Tibetan culture. People, they come and meet and dance, even without spiritual backgrounds. And then, of course, Rinpoche he chose specifically all these songs. It must have been amazing for him to see these young Tibetans singing about their culture, in a modern way and dressed up what we call ‘like Tibetans’ because they walk around in jeans and sunglasses these days too. Then this message for spreading also the teaching, and connecting to new generations, not sitting in monasteries and going to religious places and endlessly studying – to reach them also. And the power really of sound…

Eva: If any, what is your personal connection to the Tibetan culture? 

Stoffelina: I’m not Tibetan, but I had a fortune long time ago to go on a trip with a great master, his name is Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, to Tibet with a lot of big family crew of people, of different cultures, ages et cetera. And that was new and striking for the rest of my life, that trip. So in that sense, I feel I have a very strong connection with Tibet. 

Eva: Do you have a vision of where Khaita will be in 10 years? And also for you personally, do you see yourself still dancing in 10 years?

Stoffelina: Sure. I will dance after my death <laughs>. This, I hope. That’s a good question. Oh, I think there will be many more smaller and bigger circles. There will be more performances and more in bigger places. The energy will produce more instructors. In 10 years, I think Khaita might be not something completely like an unknown product. And I think it will also be in schools. And I think there will be something amazing and surprising. We do not know yet <laughs>. I think things will evolve, this I can see and I can feel. There’s still a lot to find out about, but I think in 10 years there will be a surprise, really like a surprise not knowing what for sure. There’s always kind of something amazing. Like amazing. 

Eva: And one last question: In one sentence or in one word what does Khaita mean to you personally?

Stoffelina: <long pause> When I saw Khaita for the first time I saw the image I drew in my own thesis. I drew many people together holding hands, all over the world. Yeah. For me it’s about going beyond, beyond structures maybe like in the sense of concept or limitations or accepting and rejecting, without any teaching philosophy. We use our capacities because we all have and help each other to overcome the limits of, how to you say, our ‘pit’, where you fall into, where you get trapped. To liberate from prison. Just enjoy. Also related to freedom. So this for me is very interesting. Maybe to go through the structure is to go out the structure. But carried by the joy, exposed by the joy, the joy is the fire, the exploding part. More or less like this. Maybe I can write you a letter where I rephrase.

Eva: Thank you, Stoffelina. 

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