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Anna Halprin’s Planetary Dance: People power for peace

It’s early evening, and Anna Halprin is leading one of her weekly dance and improvisation classes at her Marin County studio. She guides the dancers across the wood floor, gracefully demonstrating movement after movement. Her voice fills the room as she encourages students to dig deeper. She is calm, but energetic. She is 91 years old.

In the dance community, Halprin is a living legend – a pioneer in postmodern dance who began her career in the 1930s. Along with artists like Trisha Brown and John Cage she founded the influential, experimental Dancers’ Workshop in San Francisco in 1955. She and her husband, the late architect Lawrence Halprin, were frequent collaborators, and in 1978 she founded the Tamalpa Institute for expressive arts education and therapy with her daughter Daria Halprin.

Halprin has influenced generations of dancers and artists with her unique integration of dance and healing work, as well as her use of performance to explore social issues. Much of this work has taken place at her home and studio here on the lower slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, where the outdoor dance deck designed by her husband has hosted countless performances, classes, and explorations.

One of her lasting contributions is the Planetary Dance. It’s been performed on the mountain for 30 years, and has grown into a global movement. Halprin describes it as a community dance ritual. The difference between a dance ritual and a dance performance, she says, is in the intention. “It's not a pretend experience, it's not make-believe,” she explains.  “It's not done­­––art for art's sake. It's done actually to create some kind of change, or to honor some particular event.”

The Planetary Dance began in 1981, when a serial murderer nicknamed the Trailside Killer was terrorizing Marin county. People in the area were living in fear, locking front doors that normally stayed open. And trails on Mt. Tamalpais were closed. Around the same time, Halprin and her husband were holding a series of workshops for the community. The workshops explored the connections between myth, ritual, dance, and the environment. Halprin noticed that many of the participants were focusing their imagery on the mountain itself. She found that many people were angry and wanted to reclaim their mountain.

Halprin decided to respond in the best way she knew how: by creating a dance. A group of about 80 dancers and community members, including families with children, traveled up the mountain and went to the six places where bodies had been found. They made offerings and performed creative rituals. “Somebody planted a tree, somebody said a poem, some children did a dance,” Halprin remembers. “And then we walked down the mountain and two days later, the killer was caught!”

While no one claimed that their ritual had caused this coincidence, many of the participants had felt empowered by their actions. Ira Kamin, a journalist who was a part of that first pilgrimage, wrote about it in California Living magazine, saying, “There is no more wind today on the very top of this mountain. There is such stillness, such peace.”

A few months later, a Huichol shaman named Don Jose Matsuwa came to visit the Tamalpa Institute. Halprin told him about what they had done on the mountain. She says the shaman acknowledged the power of what they had done, but told her they needed to repeat the ritual for another five years. “He was at that time 107 years old,” she says, “And I thought to myself, ‘I'll have to do this. I can't not do it with this wise man that's 107 years old.’”

Those five years turned into six, seven, eight, nine... on until the present day. Halprin and her growing community of dancers continued to enact the dance ritual annually, choosing a different theme each time such as a cure for AIDS, violence in schools, or breast cancer. This year’s theme is peace.

The central component of the Planetary Dance is called the Earth Run. It’s a movement score, which is a set of movement instructions, kind of like a recipe for a dance. First, people declare their intentions verbally one by one, standing up from a kneeling position. Then, dancers form three circles, one inside the other, moving in different directions. There are options for running fast, jogging, walking, or being still. Musicians in the center of the circle provide a steady beat. This simple and accessible choreography invites everyone into the dance, no matter their training or physical ability.

Halprin says in creating the Planetary Dance she was very influenced by Native American dances, especially their use of repetition. “The accumulation of the numbers of people repeating that movement becomes almost meditative,” she says, “and takes you out of your ego. It puts you into a state of consciousness which is very heightened in relationship to the energetic force that’s created by everybody doing the same step at the same time.”

The power of this kind of group energy is very real for Halprin. She points out that the military also uses unison movement, but for a very different purpose and effect. “So one needs to use that energy with great responsibility and knowledge of where you want it to go,” she warns.

Over the years, the Planetary Dance has spread to other parts of the globe. It is practiced now in 30 countries worldwide. Halprin tells the story of a Tamalpa Institute graduate who traveled to Angola, a country that suffered a three-decade civil war.  A young human rights worker who had been a conscripted soldier, was especially moved by the dance ritual. Last year the Tamalpa Institute invited him to come to California to learn how to lead the Planetary Dance, but government opposition to his human rights work has prevented him from traveling. Halprin says that while she’s troubled by the young man’s situation, she has not been discouraged. “I wear him kind of like an emblem on my heart,” she says. “To keep me going – saying, gonna keep doing this until the day I stop breathing.”

Back in the dance studio, it’s now after 9 o’clock. The trees outside the windows are shrouded in darkness, and though class has officially ended, Anna Halprin is still going. Students are coming up to her to speak individually, and she shows no signs of flagging energy as she talks and gestures, demonstrating with her whole body, the way forward.