ANNA HALPRIN: Redefining Dance at 95

By Sue Heinemann

Anna Halprin leading a group of women
Photo by Sue Heinemann

ANNA HALPRIN is, quite simply, amazing. In July she’ll turn 95, but she is still actively teaching, experimenting, creating, performing, and changing people’s lives through her approach to dance. “I have an enduring love for dance and its power to teach, inspire, heal, and transform,” she affirms. “I’ve spent a lifetime of passion and devotion probing the nature of dance and asking why it is so important as a life force. I find great excitement in sharing my deep love of dance with ordinary and diverse people. Their unique creativity inspires me to make dances that grow out of our lives. I want to integrate life and art so that as our art expands our life deepens and as our life deepens our art expands.”

Merce Cunningham declared Anna’s work “a very strong part of dance history.” She helped shape the seminal Judson Dance Theater in New York through her students Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer. Many others, from all fields of art, have worked with her, including dancers Meredith Monk, Eiko and Komo, and Carla Blank; visual artists Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Carrie Mae Weems, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha; musicians Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, and Morton Subotnik; and poets Richard Brautigan, Michael McClure, and Wanda Coleman. Currently she is collaborating with artist Janine Antoni and choreographer Stephen Petronio on a project for the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Further attesting to her impact are all the festivities for her 95th birthday: Dances for Anna organized by the Tamalpa Institute in more than 40 locations worldwide (see and 95 Rituals created by inkBoat (see

How much Anna is still giving to others was apparent when I traveled with her to Israel last fall. There she completed her trilogy Remembering Lawrence, honoring her late husband, who helped found an early kibbutz and designed several Jerusalem landmarks. Anna led over a hundred Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze women on a silent peace walk along the Goldman Promenade, designed by Larry, situated between East and West Jerusalem. “I really personally was interested in how dance as an art form could bring people together and bypass all of our prejudices,” she told Drew Himmelstein of the Jewish Weekly. “I really feel strongly that dance is a way to heal. It’s a powerful art form.”

A few days after the walk, in a workshop that included participants from Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine, people whose countries were at war came together in a joyous way. Anna showed how, in her words, “as we tap into the deep sources of bodily wisdom through creative art expression, we dance the renewal, re-creation, and healing of ourselves and our world.” A student from Ramallah later wrote, “Through every exercise Anna gave I felt something amazing. This feeling made me connect all the exercises with the reality that I live in…. I learned a new method which will be very helpful to my dancing community work.”

Next, Anna worked with the Vertigo Dance Company, introducing them to her process of collective creativity by collaborating with artistic director Noa Wertheim, musician Miguel Frasconi, and the dancers on an Israeli version of her renowned Parades and Changes. “Rather than imposing an American aesthetic, I wanted to evolve a dance that was meaningful both to the performers and to an Israeli audience,” she said. One of the dancers affirmed: “It was wonderful that you always wanted to hear our thoughts and experiences, and really wanted to create this piece with us, so that it reflected each of our different personalities.”

“Your body is your instrument,” Anna explained to the dancers, guiding them in
explorations of how the body works, rather than imposing a style, so they could move from a place deep inside. “Because the workshop was dealing with emotions and internalizing, I felt I was letting all my emotions out, and I was crying so much!” one dancer later wrote. “This workshop allowed me to discover new sides of myself and changed me as a performer (and perhaps a person).”

A highlight of the performance was when Anna took the stage, poignantly playing her harmonica to call the dancers back to life following a sequence of shooting/falling. After a rousing Stomp Dance the piece ended with a spirited run for peace among peoples and peace with the earth (a modified Planetary Dance). To Anna’s delight, children from the kibbutz, including a mother carrying her baby, joined in. One young boy was so moved by it all he couldn’t stop crying. “What gets renewed every time with Parades and Changes is our ability to express our humanity through the language of dance and art,” Anna says.

Anna is always asking herself: Why am I dancing? Can dance make a difference? Throughout her career she has addressed social-political concerns with dance. Ceremony of Us (1969) responded to the Watts riots by bringing an all-black and an all-white group together. Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line (1989), created with men and women with AIDS and cancer, attempted to heal fears around these diseases and embody the wish to live. Seniors Rocking (2005) addressed the isolation of the elderly, while Intensive Care (2000) confronted anxieties about dying, sparked by a real-life health crisis of her husband’s.

“What I hope that I’ve accomplished in my lifetime is to redefine what dance can be,” Anna told Mary Ellen Hunt at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013. “I hope that people will understand that dance is a powerful tool— for healing, for education, for building community, in the quest for peace. I hope that will be my greatest legacy.”

Anna Halprin with a drummer and group
Photo by Sue Heinemann

One dance that Anna sees as key to her legacy is the Planetary Dance, a peace dance now in its 35th year, which has been performed in more than 50 countries. “I feel that a healthy community is one that can find a way to create together,” she explains, and that is the aim of the Planetary Dance. “Western culture,” she notes, “has mostly lost its connection to the origins of dance, which always served a purpose. Dance brought people together to confront life’s challenges, whether hunting for food, praying for rain, entering into adulthood, or healing illness. You did not dance for yourself; you danced for others, for the community as a whole. That intention underlies the Planetary Dance…. This dance fulfills my dreams for a global art that transcends cultural and temporal barriers, speaks to the needs of the community that makes it, and is flexible enough to address changing social issues. It gets right to the core of our humanness.” (This year’s Bay Area Planetary Dance is on June 7; see

Anna also sees the Tamalpa ArtCorps program as carrying out her hopes for dance as a healing and peace-making force. Students training in the Halprin Life/Art Process at the Tamalpa Institute design a project that uses artistic expression to help a community in need. Recently one graduate took the Tamalpa approach to survivors of human trafficking in Kolkata, India. Other graduates are working with victims of domestic violence, LGBT communities, cancer patients, and impoverished children. In addition, scholarships allow people already involved in the social justice arena worldwide to complete the Tamalpa training. (For more information, see

Repeatedly in interviews, Anna has underlined her search for ways to close the gap between art and life, using dance to connect us to real issues in our lives. “You do not have to be a professional to dance,” she emphasizes. “Everyone, at any age, no matter what their physical ability or ethnic background, can be a dancer.” All of us, she stresses, can tap into the incredible power of dance to “heal, transform, inspire, regenerate, and build community.”

SUE HEINEMANN, a visual artist, writer, and editor, was first inspired by Anna Halprin in 1975 and began taking Anna’s weekly classes in the late 1990s (after moving from New York to California). She is the author of two books on women’s history and worked for many years with Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics.