This article was conceived and written as a contribution to a project by the “tenera mente – onlus” association, ‘Montessori ed oltre’ (Montessori and Beyond), a two-volume work bringing together essays by university professors and expert testimony of original educational experiences in the field of disciplines that did not exist or had not been established in Montessori’s time.
When Enrica Baldi, founder of the ‘tenera-mente’ association, as well as a student of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and a dear friend, contacted me to invite me to participate in the project as an ‘expert’ in dances, I accepted with enthusiasm. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to rethink Rinpoche’s Teachings of the Vajra Dance and Khaita Joyful Dances from an educational perspective and also to reflect on how to present them to an audience outside the Dzogchen Community, in simple and non-self-referential language. The article, published in Vol. 2 of the text, is the result of these reflections.
An article written by Adriana Dal Borgo for the book Con Montessori ed oltre, Vol.2′, published by TAB Edizioni
Translated by Miranda Shannon
1. Tibetan culture: a view of man and of the world
Eastern thinking brings with itself an aura of mystery and magic, like a chest of hidden treasures ready to be discovered along with the memory of fairy tales, echoes of adventurous travels, perfumed spices and colorful silks.
Setting aside fantasy and personal ideas, the East has been the cradle and the source of ancient civilizations, knowledge of which has only reached the West in the last two centuries. One of these is the civilization of the Tibetan plateau, the so called “Roof of the World” because of the extraordinary height of its mountains. Due to its geographic peculiarities, this area remained remote and inaccessible up until a few decades ago.
Isolated for thousands of years, this civilization’s vast cultural heritage embracing different fields of knowledge has remained unchanged. Now we have the possibility to engage with it, which offers the rare opportunity to experience this ancient culture in its original form.
The political events of the last century forced many of the Tibetan people to flee their country which led to the discovery and dissemination of their knowledge.
Besides being ancient, the culture of the Tibetan plateau covers vast areas of knowledge traditionally grouped into a corpus of 10 sciences that is divided into five major sciences and five minor ones. The major sciences include arts and craftsmanship, medicine, linguistics, logic and spiritual doctrines. The minor ones include astrology, poetics, rhetoric, etymology and drama. (Namkhai Norbu: “The Light of Kailash”, Vol.III, Shang Shung Publication, 2015).
These different fields offer a particular understanding of man never considered as a separate individual, but always connected to the environment, the universe and the divine. Medicine for example considers health and disease as the result of the relationship between man and his physical environment, and of the balancing of the elements pervading both of them. The five elements are: air, earth, fire, water and space.
Astrology has a worldview that considers the characteristics of the individual as the outcome of the interaction of different aspects (the five elements, the characteristics of the year, month and day, the synergy at the moment of birth among the different aspects of the individual: body, capacity, fortune and protective force). According to Tibetan astrology, the characteristics of the individual are related to actions and behaviors of past lives, in keeping with a spiritual attitude marked by the “reincarnation” concept, that is to say the idea that the body of every single being is the bearer of an ancient “conscience” embodying different forms of existence life after life.
In this framework, Tibetan Buddhism stands out as a religious vision of the world and of life, the essence of which is represented by the Dzogchen teaching.
2. Dzogchen Teaching and The Dance
2.1. What is Dzogchen
The ancient primordial wisdom of Dzogchen which literally means “Great Perfection” has been kept alive and handed down for centuries from one generation to the next, through the transmission of extraordinary spiritual beings called “Masters”. It is a spirituality that does not aspire to something far away and difficult to attain, but rather the recognition of one’s own true nature and the necessary training to be able to achieve it. It favors a search directed within oneself rather than following what are considered to be the endless mirages and illusions created by the mind. It is a path of awareness and profound self knowledge, whose totality is represented by the union of three interconnected aspects: body, speech or energy and mind.
We understand the meaning of a physical body: when we meet a friend, we recognize them immediately because we know their features. Energy is an inner aspect, it is everyone’s vital force. One can perceive the emotions of a friend and how they feel. The mind, instead, is a more hidden and complex aspect, it includes sensorial perception, thinking and reasoning. In this article we present two different types of dances that come from “The Roof of the World”. In the early 1990’s Professor Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, a renowned Dzogchen Master, started transmitting them.
These dances – the Vajra Dance and Khaita Joyful Dances – harmonize the three above-mentioned aspects of our existence, body, speech and mind, and through music and dance they favor well being and spiritual progress.
● The Vajra Dance is a sacred dance leading to the discovery of the inner self utilizing specific sounds or mantras and a mandala.
● Khaita Joyful Dances are dances based on Tibetan melodies which promote awareness of movement, favor interpersonal relationships and enhance the joy of dancing together.
I learned these dances directly from Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, practicing them with him many hours a day for several years. He personally assigned me the task to teach them and create an educational training structure for new instructors.
2.2. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
An outstanding scholar of Tibetan culture and acknowledged as one of the greatest Dzogchen Masters, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu introduced this ancient teaching to the West. At first, he was invited to Italy in 1960 by Professor Giuseppe Tucci, scholar of Tibetan culture, to collaborate with him at the ISMEO. Professor Chögyal Namkhai Norbu subsequently taught Tibetan and Mongolian Language and Literature at the University of Naples for 40 years.
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu understood that to preserve the Dzogchen teachings and protect it from disappearing, it was of the utmost importance to bring this knowledge out of Tibet and share it with the rest of the world. The risk is particularly high if the Tibetan language is no longer spoken, because it is the language in which the Dzogchen teachings has been preserved and transmitted. This explains why Chögyal Namkhai Norbu was always profoundly engaged in promoting the study of Tibetan language and culture. His collections of songs and dances are an example of his commitment. Besides illustrating and explaining the principles of the Dzogchen teachings, he devoted the majority of his life to find a way to integrate them and make them usable in different cultural contexts to favor individual growth and evolution:
“We live on this planet together with many other people. Evolution means to develop the understanding of one’s own nature without being too 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 individual.” (Namkhai Norbu “Evolution and our responsibility towards all sentient beings” The Mirror n.123)
Therefore, an important step towards this evolution is the capacity to observe ourselves honestly and fearlessly, discovering our tensions and letting go of them, ultimately finding ourselves in an effortlessly relaxed state. This creates an example for others and beginning with one person, it will eventually bring about a profound change in society.
3. The Two Methods: The Vajra Dance and Joyful Khaita Dances
3.1. The Vajra Dance
Vajra is a Sanskrit term meaning “diamond”. It symbolizes our true nature, our primordial condition which like the diamond is hard, stable and indestructible.
We dance the Vajra Dance on a mandala of five colors: red, green, yellow, white and blue.
(Mandala drawing, sequence of steps, Namkhai Norbu, 1991)
The mandala is a diagram symbolizing the correspondence between the inner dimension of the individual (microcosm) and the outer one of the world (macrocosm).
The mandala always has a center, from which energy arises and spreads outward, to a border that includes all projections in space and time, that is to say everything manifests from the center. The five colors in the mandala represent the essence of the five elements which constitute both the body of the dancer and the outer world: fire (red) is heat and is linked to vitality; air (green) is the wind – imagine the waving of a tree’s leaves – and is linked to breathing; earth (yellow) is the base sustaining us and in our physical body is represented by bones; water (white) is liquid, the sea, the ocean, and in the physical body it is represented by blood and vital lymph; space (blue) is the element containing everything, it is associated with the mind which is able to manifest thoughts and images.
The colors and the concentric circles of the mandala direct the movements and the steps of the twelve dancers along codified sequences; in a clockwise direction for male dancers and a counterclockwise one for female dancers. The movements (sometimes symmetric, sometimes mirroring or complementary) also represent the play of female and male energies.
The two circles of male and female dancers merge together and reappear again along all the directions of the mandala alternating steps (right and left foot with corresponding arm movements) with rotations on one’s self both clockwise and anti-clockwise. The heel is well placed at the beginning of each step, creating a support on the ground from which the next movement arises uninterruptedly. Movements are slow, light and smooth and the arms are raised upwards creating a bridge between earth and sky, material and spiritual dimensions. This continuous movement in circle represents the sequence of events, the wheel of life with its cycle of generations without interruptions.
The rhythm of the dance is marked by the melody of sacred sounds, the mantras: sounds in a language that is considered the most ancient, Sanskrit, where the sound represents precisely the essence of the object or name. Therefore, the sounds reproduce vibrations in the body linked to primordial sounds, activating and harmonizing deep energies.
According to the Dzogchen Teachings, the body originates from sound, it is like “a materialized” sound. Energy or life force is concentrated in centers or points called chakras, from which the physical body develops. The function of mantra is to connect to inner sound, coordinating energy and enabling it to flow without any obstacles and interruptions.
Dancing in synchrony, immersed in colours and led by sounds touching the deepest heartstrings of our being, results in an echo and opening up to a contemplative dimension. In addition to promoting personal well-being, the Vajra Dance brings benefits to others as well. First of all, we dance with the intention, empowered then by mantras and symbolic gestures, of expressing loving kindness towards all sentient beings.
In one of the different Vajra Dances, at the end of each steps sequence, we place our left hand on the heart, seat of love and compassion, and at the same time the right hand turns palm up on the hip side in a mudra or gesture symbolizing the equanimous offering of these feelings to all sentients beings.
In the following video you can easily recognize the aspects and characteristics of the Vajra Dance up above described: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e4AXSPch9w
3.2 The Joyful Khaita Dances – Harmony in Space
Poetry, popular songs and dances express the culture of a country. In Tibetan schools, song and popular dances are regularly taught to children because it is part of their tradition. For example, they dance to celebrate the beginning of spring and the joy of meeting again and getting together after a long winter. Dancing is the celebration of life and of the pleasure of being together.
Joyful Khaita Dances are much more than just traditional songs and dances. Khaita in Tibetan means “Harmony in the Space”. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu proposed an original method aiming at utilizing dances and songs to favor the arising of a joyful condition of relaxation, awareness and peacefulness in the individual. Though born in Tibet, he lived the majority of his life in the West and he saw the shortcomings of western education, and the limitations imposed by the rhythm of modern society. Therefore, he collected hundreds of songs selected on the basis of melodies and meaning of the lyrics. Words and values expressed in the songs are universal values such as peace, love for one’s own land, respect for the environment, collaboration and the desire to go beyond any kind of barriers and prejudices; they take shape in traditional choreographies and in the ones created in a very original way by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu together with dancers coming from different countries of the world.
These are simple dances, and the majority of them are performed in circles. This collection also includes more elaborate and complex dances that are particularly suitable for performances. These dances are dynamic, with frequent rhythm changes along with step variations. Arm movements are expansive, smooth, fluid and continuous following the steps and anticipating rotations on one’s self, if occurring in the choreography. Some sequences of steps remain in place, others move sideways, others follow the direction of dancers moving in a circle clockwise or counterclockwise.
The great variety of Joyful Khaita Dances (more than 200) trains the dancer to recognize the rhythm of movement, showing in a broad sense how to behave according to different circumstances. “Getting into the rhythm teaches us to be aware of the temporal dimension of our life, to be present and act properly in keeping with ever changing circumstances” as Chögyal Namkhai Norbu has repeatedly stated, and this can’t help reminding us of Maria Montessori’s words on rhythm: “Rhythm is not like an old idea which can be changed or a new one you can understand. The rhythm of movement is integral part of the individual, an inherent characteristic, just like the body shape: if it is in harmony with other similar rhythms, suffering is inevitable if it has to adjust to different rhythms.”
(Maria Montessori, Il segreto dell’infanzia, Garzanti, pag. 118)
Consequently, working with rhythm helps the individual to open up and be more adaptable to people and situations. When we dance, just like in the Tibetan tradition, we try to follow the words and sing: from a didactic point of view, we are aware that listening to the sounds in an unfamiliar language makes the mind more flexible and favors integration with a new culture. The simplicity of the movements allows one to learn effortlessly, and not having a goal or outcome to achieve stimulates collaboration rather than competition.
Dancing in circular formation offers several interesting aspects and many advantages. There is no special position: we are all at the same level, we can take each other by the hand, and in order to maintain the circle we have to collaborate because two people alone cannot create this shape. The ability to look at our fellow dancers, allows us to recognize ourselves in them as if they were a mirror, and to correct and coordinate our movements with theirs. In this way we transcend the movement of the individual, and spontaneously create harmony as a group. The circle is a recurring shape in nature: from the movement of water to the shape and orbit of the planets, it is the symbol of emptiness and of fullness as well because it is endowed with all the potentialities, the perfect shape without any angles or interruptions, with no beginning nor end. Since the very beginning, human beings have always liked to meet around a fire or a tree to dance. This is the reason we are much more relaxed when dancing in a circle. I suggest watching the following video that shows how Joyful Dances are widely diffused and practiced around the world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icDJOxyOMnI
The importance of Vajra Dance and of the Joyful Khaita Dances has been acknowledged by the CID (Conseil International de la Danse), the official organization affiliated with UNESCO, which gathers all dance forms in the world. These two types of dances have been included in CID’s programs, and are presented all over the world by qualified instructors together with related activities. These dances are spreading in Italy and elsewhere through courses, training workshops, presentations, performances, and collective dancing events. They have been presented several times at the Dance Olympiads in Moscow, at the Faiths in Tune at the British Museum in London, and during various CID conferences at the wonderful Dora Stratu theater in Athens. The Vajra Dance was included in the inauguration ceremony of the Biennale of Venice in 2017, and at the inter religious event Sports and Religions for Peace, at the San Carlo Theater in Naples in 2019.
4. Dance As An Educational Path
Why is dance a valuable educational tool?
To dance means to create and share with children and young people moments of emotional, playful and relational experience to promote well balanced and comprehensive personal growth. Dance teaches the student to know their own body and to use movement to communicate with others, and discover how the quality of movement is strictly linked to space, musical rhythm, and last but not least to the people around us.
The rhythmic-musical element assumes a fundamental importance in the individual education. In particular according to the theoretician and choreographer Rudolf Laban, dance produces an organized cooperation of our mental emotional and physical faculties resulting in actions of great importance for coordination, harmony and personality development. From this point of view, dance mainly means moving with awareness and increasing one’s capacity for observation. It noticeably influences social relationships: the closeness of one’s peers, the need to express oneself and communicate with others, and the need to be understood, strengthen friendships and encourage inclusion. Dance can become a tool to overcome age related conflicts facilitating the assimilation of the individual’s qualities into a harmonious group.
4.2 Developing Skills
4.2.1 Functional Skills
a – General motor coordination: the perception of one’s body in motion promotes the structuring of body image, which dance helps to integrate and complete.
b – Segmented coordination: the ability to coordinate the movement of the upper and lower limbs (for example moving the right leg and right arm, or on the contrary the left leg and right arm) and the independent use of the upper and lower limbs, (e.g. taking steps and gesturing at the same time); this capacity enhances the awareness of one’s body.
c – Laterality: the student is constantly stimulated to be aware of their own laterality (right and left) in relation to themself, others and the surrounding space.
4.2.2 Cognitive Skills
a – spatial organization and orientation characterized by the direction of movement backward and forward, left and right), its extent ( large or small, short or long, near or far), its level (high or low), and its appearance (zigzag, spiral, and circular).
b – timing which is expressed through duration (slow or fast), the succession of actions (before or after) or simultaneity: two identical or two different movements occurring at the same time. c – sense of rhythm: if rhythm is a natural movement, the body is the ultimate rhythmic instrument: fast movements imply fluency and liveliness, while slow movements imply control, balance and inner calm.
d – motor imitation: at the end of a choreographic sequence learned by imitation, the student can repeat it mentally which promotes the capacity for internalization and representation. e – memorization of step sequences and choreographic patterns.
4.2.3 Physiological Strengthening
Through dance, the student will improve cardio-respiratory function, mobility and muscle flexibility.
4.2.4 Relational Skills
Dance is a collective activity that takes place in a context of play and fun. For this reason, it fosters a sense of socialization, belonging and cohesion, as well as promoting cooperation aimed at reaching a common goal. Collective dances offer students several opportunities to discover “the pleasure of doing and playing” with their peers through movement. Based on a respect for rules, group dance develops trust in oneself and others thereby improving self-esteem. These relational aspects make dance an important tool for the integration of students experiencing distress and /or socio-relational problems, sometimes fulfilling a therapeutic function.
5. Integrated Approach
The care and the training of the body are important in Western culture as well, but movement and physical activity are often associated with competition and effort. Think of all the sports in which people compete to finish first, or try to break records: ability and effort are the key elements. Sometimes sport activities have an aesthetic function (classical ballet, artistic gymnastics) both as an art form and as a way to shape the body. Dance is a tool to become more attractive and pleasing rather than developing sensitivity.
Local and traditional dances, on the other hand, convey different functions and goals, but have only received attention in educational tracks during certain time periods. Eastern disciplines have a more comprehensive understanding of the person aimed at promoting the harmonious development of the whole individual, and a balanced well-being rather than focusing on strenuous training or strengthening of specific parts of the body.
The methods we have presented are an excellent pedagogical tool when integrated into a teaching method based on the principles of an education that develops personality through experience, as in the Montessori method where the child “absorbs the world” not so much through speech and reasoning, but rather through sensory stimuli coming from the environment. What more than dancing in a relaxed way, with an open mind, allows us to fully utilize the two most important senses for development, namely: hearing (sound and music) and sight (moving in a space, and together with others and seeing what surrounds us as we move)?
Maria Montessori considers education an “aid to life”, giving movement a fundamental role as it is closely related to the development of the intellect.
“In our times we make the mistake of considering movement as something by itself quite different from more elevated functions. We think muscles must be used only to keep in very good condition body health: consequently exercises and gymnastic sequences are performed to keep us fit, to breathe deeply, to facilitate digestion and induce sleep, as if from a physiological point of view a great prince were obliged to wait on a shepherd. This great prince – the muscular system – is used and considered only as a tool for the vegetative system. This mistake leads to a dichotomy: physical life from one side and mental one from the other. (…) Mental development must be associated to movement and must be dependent on it.” (Montessori “La mente del bambino”, ed. Garzanti 1999, Milano, pag.141).
Montessori underlines the relationship between intelligence and the development of hand skills, as if “the scope of intelligence was the work of hands” (pag.150). It is precisely the use of the hands that is a pivotal element of the two dances presented here: the hand guides the movement of the arm and gives rise to those gestures and mudras, designed to represent the content of the dance. Montessori asserts that in the child there is “a force able to harmonize all the tasks among themselves” and she places great hope in an education promoting the development of the child and consequently brings “ mankind to better understanding, more well-being and greater spirituality”. (Montessori “La mente del bambino”, ed. Garzanti 1999, Milano, pag.67).
For all these reasons, we believe that the two dance methods presented in this article can contribute significantly to an educational track that promotes the awareness and the evolution of the individual and society.
Namkhai Norbu “The Light of Kailash”, Vol.III, Shang Shung Publication, 2015, Arcidosso (GR) Namkhai Norbu “Nascere, vivere e morire secondo la Medicina Tibetana e l’Insegnamento Dzogchen”, Edizioni Shang Shung, 1992, Arcidosso (GR)
Namkhai Norbu “Lo Specchio – un consiglio sulla presenza e consapevolezza”, Ed. Shang Shung, 2005, Arcidosso (GR)
Namkhai Norbu “Evoluzione e la nostra responsabilità verso tutti gli esseri senzienti”, The Mirror n.123
Maria Montessori “La mente del bambino”, Ed.Garzanti 1999, Milano
Maurizio Padovan “Danzare a scuola”, Ed.Progetti Sonori 2012, Mercatello sul Metauro (PU) Rudolf Laban “L’arte del movimento”, Ephemeria 1999, Macerata