Art Meets Life: The 30th Annual Planetary Dance

By Claudia Bauer


At the end of the movie Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s character tearfully confesses that she really does want world peace. Okay, it’s a little silly—and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I cry every time I see it. Because as much we want to laugh off our worries about the planet, they’re always tugging at us. But what can we do to improve even the small things, much less bring about world peace?

Pioneering Bay Area choreographer Anna Halprin has devoted much of her seventy-year career doing just that. “In today’s world, where there are so many uncertainties, we feel, I feel, just overwhelmed,” Halprin confessed. Yet she aims at nothing less than achieving world peace, one dancer at a time, through her Planetary Dance, now a global event in its thirtieth year.

“Can you image doing a dance for thirty years?” Halprin mused. “I was ready to stop after the first year. Then it became so meaningful to all of us, and we decided, well, we’ll do it again. And then we did it again. There would always be some issue that would come up. The issue of AIDS; we felt we had to do that. And then breast cancer. And then Bush—we had to do something about that!” she said, laughing.

The first dance, in 1981, was called In and On the Mountain and had one purpose: to reclaim Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais from the Trailside Killer, who was still at large after murdering five women on Tam’s paths. Anna and her late husband, Lawrence, hosted a ritual dance focused on healing the mountain. Days later, an anonymous tip led to the Trailside Killer’s arrest.

Halprin doesn’t claim that the dance solved the crime. But she believes that by channeling our collective spirit and intention, we can invoke a higher power for good, a philosophy inspired by the Native American concept of dance as a prayer for the planet, for nature and for all people.

“The Planetary Dance is a ritual, based on very ancient ideas about ritual: it’s done for a purpose to bring about change,” she explained. “We didn’t perhaps think that dance could have that kind of value in our culture today; it was either art or something else. I think the Planetary Dance represents a life-art process, where it can be a combination of both. You can use art as ritual, in the sense that art can illuminate aspects of real life.”

This year’s theme, Dancing with Life on the Line, harks back to Halprin’s work in the 1980s with dance as a healing art for AIDS patients. Sadly, AIDS is still with us, and it’s been joined by countless other worries. “We couldn’t find any one thing—the volcanoes, the floods, the economy, people didn’t have jobs. So we just went back to life on the line, and it can take on any personal connection you have to the world.”

The dance is choreographed so that people of all abilities can participate fully. With drummers in the center providing a guiding heartbeat, the group performs three passages of running, walking, standing and kneeling in concentric circles. “We have one run which we do for somebody very real in your life. Somebody always has something real in their personal life that they want to dance for, even the children—they’ll dance for a kitty-cat that just died, or a goldfish that just died, or their grandma who is sick. And we find that that is the most dynamic run. You can just see it in people’s movements,” she said.

Halprin recalled one dancer who exemplified the impact of the first run. “A man from Nigeria was with us one year. And I noticed when he was dancing, that there was this intensity that absolutely stood out from everybody. Afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘I danced for my twin brother, John, and I had never said his name in ten years.’ When [the participants] dance, they rise up and they announce to the whole community, ‘I dance for…John, who was murdered ten years ago.’ So when it’s very real, you really do it.”

The second run reaches out to the world. “Somebody might run for a friend who has breast cancer—and all people who have breast cancer. Or somebody might dance for a loss; sometimes you dance for all people who are in mourning.” After a pause, the children lead the third circle. “They run like the wind! They start choosing people until everyone is dancing together. Before you know it there will be whole families dancing, staying with the run but adding their own signature piece to it.”

Clearly, something in the movement, something essential and primal, resonates on a basic human level: people in nearly forty countries now host their own Planetary Dances each year. This spring, the organizing committee held a leadership workshop for them.

“Somebody came from Scotland, from England, from Germany, from France, from Israel—all over the place,” Halprin said. “One woman came from Jerusalem. She met a woman from New York who’s going to be in Jerusalem. And another woman, Isabelle Sjahsam, is going to [the Ramallah Dance Festival] in Palestine. So the three of them got together and said, ‘Let’s do a Planetary Dance with the Palestinians and the Israelis.’ Isn’t that exciting?” On the eve of her ninetieth birthday, Halprin still inspires people to make a difference.

In March, Halprin led a Planetary Dance at Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, her debut at the site of so much groundbreaking modern dance. “I was so pleased and even surprised to see how emotionally involved the New York group was in performing the Planetary Dance, because they used to refer to me as ‘the touchy-feely dancer from California.’ I was also impressed with the nonjudgmental and complete acceptance the various professional dancers had for one another and others in the group from all walks of life. It was reaffirming to witness a large group of people develop a sense of community in such a short time to dance for peace.”

That feeling of community has given Anna’s career tremendous purpose. Earlier on, “I was definitely trying to open up new perceptions of how the art process could be used. I went away from the proscenium arch, I went back to ordinary movement, I did all kinds of things for the purpose of freeing the definition of what dance is,” she said. “But I think that’s been done. I think nowadays young dancers are more total artists. They use their voices, they sing, they talk, they use technology, which I don’t even use. So I think that my contribution that will last forever is the life-art process. How can dance really enrich your life? How can dance be used as healing? How can dance be used to educate the young? So it’s really going back to the roots of dance as it applies to modern times.”

It’s also about dancing, and living, with hope and meaning. “When you’re older, as I am, [competition] isn’t important anymore. I don’t care whether two people see what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter. But the Planetary Dance really matters. That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.”

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and