Maya Sapera performing Kalbeliya Dance/Indian Gypsy Dance

© Viona Art

Kalbeliya Dance / Indian Gypsy Dance

"Let the desert speak her dance."

What is popularly coined as Rajasthani Gypsy Dance, is in reality based on the traditional folk dance of the women of the Kalbeliyas, a non-pastoral nomadic group from the North Indian state of Rajasthan. Nowadays Kalbeliya women are giving performances all over the world. Their performances are rapidly changing the fate of their community, still despised as "outcastes" in India and are also significantly influencing the art form itself. Paradoxical to the current openness with which these women nowadays exhibit their skills, until a few decades ago Kalbeliya women only danced at specific occasions and events exclusively for members of their own community. Performing for "outsiders" was strictly forbidden to protect the honor of the women from men outside the community. This recent change of mentality in the traditionally very closed community is popularly ascribed to the efforts of Gulabi Sapera, reportedly the first Kalbeliya woman to perform before audiences outside her own community and nowadays the representative face of the art form. Nevertheless, more far reaching reasons appear to have reinforced the disclosure of this art form. Prior to these recent developments, the Kalbeliyas were commonly known as snake charmers and priests of the snake god, therefore they are also often called Saperā (Hindi for "snake charmer"). Following the prohibition on catching snakes for commercial gain, imposed by the Indian government since 1972, the Kalbeliyas' livelihood became severly threatened. Recognizing the profits generated by their women's performances, the community elders were forced to accept Gulabi's practice for economic reasons, and the practice quickly spread among the entire community. Moreover, since roughly two decades the state of Rajasthan has been successfully portraying itself as "India's heritage state" and emerging as a top tourist destination.Rajasthani Gypsy Dance, performed by Kalbeliya women, has become a highly appreciated part of this heritage. Through such encounters numerous culturally engaged Westerners are taking initiatives to involve Kalbeliyas in Western projects. Alongside the renewed (and perhaps ever-present) Western interest in the romantic concept of the “gypsy artist” this created a popular conception of the Kalbeliyas as ancestors of the European gypsies. Its status as a dance, until recently "hidden from the world", undoubtedly only enhances its attractiveness in the eyes of the West. The very recent recognition of Kalbeliya dance as "World Intangible Heritage" by the UNESCO in November 2010, may even further transform it, as the primary motivations for inscription appears not to be the preservation of the art form, but the emancipation of Kalbeliya community.

Traditionally, women make a circle. In this circle all women, young and old, talented or not, dance alternately encouraged by the singing of other women. The dancing woman has a freedom of expression. There are no fixed patterns to follow, only improvisation.  Because of the liberty and improvisation typical for the Kalbeliya dance, it is difficult to analyse  and discribe the dance style. Moreover, the personal style of the dancer is very important and can be very diverse. Nevertheless there is a coordinating style which is characteristic for this genre and which gives a distinct identity to the community.  The subtle hand- and arm movements situated on breast level by a continious opening and closing of the arms and elbows, the rapid turning movements, the light hip movements and foot stamps following the rhythm are basic identification marks of Kalbeliya dancing.
The hand movements are very precise and subtle. The fingers and wrists are very important and are accentuated through pronounced and fairly large movements.

Because of the evolution in Kalbeliya dance from folk dance to performance art, the style seen on (Western) stages is slightly different from the original dance form. The dance has evolved to more up-tempo movements with lots of turnings and spins, acrobatic steps and more facial expressions.