Dance anna gold dance

Published on October 19th, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Transformative Dance Workshop with Anna Halprin

Photo courtesy of the Dance Arts Foundation

When you have the chance to dance with a legend, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. I had the privilege of participating in a two day Movement Ritual and Dance Exploration workshop in Kentfield, CA, led by pioneer of postmodern dance, Anna Halprin. At age 92, her career has spanned six decades, yet she still travels, dances and inspires countless people to undergo healing and transformation through her unique dance and movement exercises.

Halprin started her work in the 1950s when she came up with revolutionary new directions for modern dance. She was one of the first in the contemporary Western world to use dance as a healing and transformative art. In 1955, she founded the progressive and highly experimental San Francisco Dancers Workshop, which allowed for public participation and exploration of new types of movement. By the early 1960s, Halprin began collaborating with other artists and leaders such as Fritz Perls, Moshe Feldenkrais, Carl Rogers and Thomas Gordon in a groundbreaking movement that started bridging the fields of dance, art, somatics, performance, psychology and education. In 1978, she founded the Tamalpa Institute, which offers training programs and workshops in the Life/Art Process, a movement-based expressive arts approach that integrates dance and movement, visual arts, performance and therapeutic practices to support personal, interpersonal and social transformation.

Halprin’s work also focuses on using dance as a way to explore contemporary culture. Dance historian Dr. Janice Ross, Halprin’s biographer, notes that “Halprin’s story offers a vivid case study of modern dance in the process of redefinition in postwar America.” Ross believes that Halprin’s work is “emblematic of Beat culture in the 1950s, youth culture in the 1960s, multiracial culture in the 1970s, the culture of illness in the 1980s, and subsequently, the culture of the aged from the 1990s to the present.”

Photo courtesy of Peter Larson

During the workshop, Halprin referred to a few of her dance performances as being pivotal reflections of American cultural history, including a multiracial dance performed in response to the Watts Riots and a public nude performance (for which she was later arrested for indecent exposure).

With her radical history in mind, I was eager to meet Halprin, who turned out to be a small woman with vibrant energy and a quirky sense of humor.

The workshop was held at her Mountain Home Studio. Nestled in a shady redwood grove, the studio featured a large outdoor deck that was designed and built by her late husband, Lawrence Halprin, who was a landscape architect and designer. Most of the workshop was held on the deck that was surrounded by amphitheater-like benches, allowing for different qualities of light to filter in through the trees as the workshop progressed. Halprin commented often on the light, noting the ways in which it interplayed with the movements and moods of the pieces.

“You are not an object in space,” Halprin said. “You are part of the space.”

Although I’ve been dancing my entire life, my training has always consisted of formal choreography. Halprin tends to focus on “scoring” instead, preferring the dance that emerges to be a collaboration; participants dance individually, moving according to how they feel. These loose parameters give dancers an opportunity to truly experiment with movement. Her style of dance is often grounded in daily movements such as walking or sitting in order to explore the relationship between the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels of everyday experience and expression.

One of the first exercises we did was to draw a self-portrait. The images that emerged were as varied as the people in the class. Feeling a bit out of my element, but knowing that I was there to seek some sort of personal transformation, I drew myself naked inside the belly of a giant seed that sat at the base of a tree surrounded by stars. I imagined that a doorway had opened, but I hadn’t yet taken the risk to emerge.

After completing our portraits, we partnered up to dance what we had just drawn, focusing our movements on three personally meaningful words. I chose to explore “magic,” “unsure” and “grow.” Quickly, the words had collapsed from movement into sound, and we began making strange noises while we danced. I emitted guttural noises and made large movements with my arms, alternating between swaying and leaping into the air. Throughout this strange dance, I felt incredibly liberated to be doing something so unconventional in a group that viewed it as completely normal.

Other dances and exercises focused on experimenting with isolated movements, practicing proper posture and learning the importance of being grounded.

“I was very active in the women’s lib movement,” Halprin said. “The first thing we did was to throw away the high heels and bring the feet to the ground. Women need to be grounded. I don’t know what it means for society that women nowadays are back up on their tiptoes.”

During the rest of the workshop, we worked on group and solo dances, focusing on different parts of the body.

Often, emotion that gets held up in the body can be released through movement, making you more aware of your own body and deeper emotions. Halprin can attest to the power of this exercise. In 1992, while drawing a self-portrait, she imagined a malignant tumor. She was so aware of her body that she discovered her own cancer before the doctors did. After bringing suppressed emotional material to the surface, her cancer went into remission. Today, Halprin works with people who suffer with cancer, trauma, AIDS or other life-threatening illnesses, helping them through their healing processes. After her husband died, she used her own techniques to begin healing, moving through each emotion and learning from her experiences to share with others.

On the second day of the workshop, we went inside the studio and did several exercises to explore movement in the spine and to improve flexibility. We worked on releasing tension from joints and slowly falling to the ground, one vertebrae at a time, and then reversing the movement to a standing position. By now, even though I had had an amazing first day, I started to feel upset about my body. It was impossible for me to fully relax. Even when lying motionless on the floor in a totally safe space, I still felt tense and had a hard time moving my body and joints. I attributed this to spending my work days at a desk, and almost started to cry that I was incapable of being fully free and relaxed because of a career choice.

This feeling of panic was heightened by a quote on the bulletin board in the reception area. The quote read:

“The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said: ‘Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.'”

“The body is living art. Your movement through time and space is art. A painter has brushes. You have your body.”

I took this message to heart and reflected on it during the rest of the afternoon. Later, we worked on a dance inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, finding the body’s core through diagonal movement. The movements were more structured and ritualistic than the other dances we had done, and I took comfort in choreography, still feeling the danger of collapsing into an emotional puddle.

The last exercise was to complete a second self-portrait to discover any transformations or shifts that had occurred. My second drawing revealed significant changes: I drew myself fearlessly jumping off a cliff into my open mouth, leaping into myself to become whole. This picture made me realize firsthand that Halprin truly has a gift, having created deeper understanding about my own life in only two days. Her secret is simple: listen to your body and use it to create something beautiful.

“The body is living art,” Halprin said. “Your movement through time and space is art. A painter has brushes. You have your body. Why wouldn’t you want to make each movement as beautiful and meaningful as possible?”

Today when I woke up, I stretched, reinvigorated and treating every movement in life like a dance.

About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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