Don José and the Planetary Dance

During the summer of 1982, I took a greyhound bus from Oakland to Pasadena to attend a benefit concert, Peace Sunday.  It was a six hour event for nuclear disarmament at the Rose Bowl before a capacity crowd of 100,000, who gathered to hear speakers such as Jesse Jackson, Cesar Chavez, and Muhammad Ali.  Musicians included Joan Baez (who was joined on stage by surprise guest Bob Dylan); Stevie Wonder; and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

During the otherwise dreary bus ride, I read The Book of the Hopi by Frank Waters.  It captured my heart and imagination.

Brant Secunda

Upon my return to Oakland, I was perusing through the free periodical Common Ground, a guide for consciousness and events.  I stumbled upon a listing by Brant Secunda, which featured excursions to visit the Hopi peoples.

I called Brant and he explained he’d just returned from visiting the Hopi, but he was leaving next week for Mexico to accompany the Huichols on a pilgrimage to their sacred grounds, Wirikuta.  Did I want to join him?  “Sure,” I said.  “OK, by the way,” Brant added. “The Huichols use peyote as a sacrament.  Do you still want to go?”  “Sure,” I said.

The following day, in Santa Cruz, California, I met with Brant and some others who’d be joining us on the pilgrimage.  Brant told the story of how he met his teacher, the 103 year old shaman don José Matsuwa.  Brant, inspired by the tales of Carlos Castaneda, traveled to Ixtlan in search of the fabled shaman don Juan.  Without adequate water, Brant headed into the desert.

Brant passed out but was revived by three Huichols, laughing and sprinkling water on his face.  They explained their village shaman, don Juan (but not Castaneda’s teacher), had a dream about him two days earlier and that they had been sent to rescue him.

The Huichols brought Brant back to don Juan, who redirected Brant to the renowned shaman, don José Matsuwa.   And so began Brant’s twelve year apprenticeship with don José.

Don Jose and Brant

Don José Matsuwa and Brant Secunda

The Huichols

Our multinational group flew to Puerto Vallarta a week later.  From there, we rented three vans.  The Huichols for thousands of years had hiked from their villages to a half dozen holy sites.  The pilgrimage retraced the steps of their ancestors and ritually prepared them for their arrival to Wirikuta, home of the mountain where the sun was born.

Wirikuta is a mountain desert in central Mexico, covered with creosote bush, mesquite, tar bush, yucca, agave, and a variety of cactus.  It is the sacred place of their ancestors and deities, where the Huichols “hunt” for peyote to gather and bring back to their village to begin their annual cycle of ceremonies.

The Huichols could no longer make their journey on foot because they had to cross farmer’s property where they’d be shot at.  So, we gringos were helping the Huichols by bringing twentieth century transportation to their pre-Columbian ritual.  A tradeoff, I hoped, that would help preserve their culture and not destroy it.

We arrived at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains.  It was a five hour hike up the mountain to don José’s ranchero.  The last hour there was a ferocious thunderstorm, the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before or since.  With brilliant light flashes and spine-jarring cracks of thunder, it felt like we were ascending Olympus, daring to approach the gods.

The Huichols gathered round to greet us as we entered their village.  They were pleased with our arrival, as they appreciated the much needed rain that accompanied us and saw it as a good sign.

Don José

Brant introduced us to don José.  Don José appeared as a little man dressed in the traditional Huichol ceremonial clothes of white pants and shirt decorated in vibrant shimmering colorful symbols.  He peered out from under a broad-brimmed hat with many tassels. His body appeared straight but very old. His eyes were ageless.

When it was my turn to meet him, I reached out and shook his right hand, forgetting Brant’s telling us don José had lost his right hand decades ago in a dynamite accident.  Shamans in many cultures are initiated through a physical wound that begins the journey that transforms them into a wounded-healer.  Rather than pull away, I continued to shake the stump, as we smiled deeply into each other’s soul.

Don Jose

Don José Matsuwa

The next morning, Brant pointed out a lookout where the Huichols first saw us when we arrived at the foot of the mountain.  I squinted and blinked trying to imagine seeing people from that incredible distance.  What else had us city folk lost besides long distance vision?

After doing a preparation ritual into the wee hours of the morning, our group and some Huichols headed back down the mountain to begin the quest.  We piled into the vans and headed off to the sacred sites, where we made offerings of chocolate, prayer arrows, and coins.

We arrived at Wirikuta at sunset.  Some of us searched for peyote.  The cactus was illusive to me, while the Huichols returned to our campground with handfuls of the sacred plant.




As don José told stories of times long gone, a train hauntingly whistled far off in the distance.  Brant reached across the camp fire and handed me a few peyote buttons.  I chewed the wretched plants.  A few of the Huichols silently munched some, oblivious to the foul taste.  I noticed they bare handedly removed scorching pans from the fire.  More outer signs of differences, that I imagined reflected deep inward skills of these remarkable people.

Soon I was feeling the effects of the hallucinogen.  Not long afterwards I threw up, which alleviated my nausea.  The Huichols just smiled, though none of them vomited.

As night blackened the incredible landscape, everyone else fell into a deep sleep.  I could barely contain the energy that surged through me, as I stayed awake all night tending the fire.  I was joined by vibrant visions, as theatrical presentations unfolded before me of the Huichol gods.

The morning light softly illuminated the surroundings.  In a few hours we were once again hunting peyote.  This time I was able to sense where the plants were hiding.  Now I’d ingested it, its presence drew me to it.



We returned to the Huichols’ mountain top village the following evening.

The next few months after returning to California, I studied with Brant.  The corn harvest ceremony seemed out of place in bustling beach town of Santa Cruz, California.  The shamanism the Huichols practiced for centuries is woven into the fabric of their culture, society, and ecology.

As I was feeling uneasy about Brant’s transplanted shamanism, I met a Native American woman who was very critical of Brant’s “Disneyland excursions” to meet the Huichols.  I drifted away from shamanism after that.

Two Worlds Converge

About four months later, Brant mailed me a flyer for a workshop he was doing in California with don José.  I agonized over attending.  Don José impressed me as a very powerful shaman, with an extraordinary sense of humor.  I was also very broke at the time, and the $20 workshop fee was another obstacle.  I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, inwardly battling over what to do, when I looked down and there was Andrew Jackson starring up at me from a twenty dollar bill.  There’s my answer.

The workshop was being held at Anna Halprin’s mountain home studio.  I met up with Brant and don José, but I was shocked to run into my old mentor James Nixon.  James had collaborated with Anna since the 1960s, so he was attending as part of her community.  I later found out how Anna knew don José.

Anna Halprin, Mt. Tamalpais, and don José Matsuwa

In 1980, Anna Halprin (who helped pioneer postmodern dance) and her husband, Lawrence (a renowned landscape architect), gave a workshop “A Search for Living Myths and Rituals Through Dance and the Environment.”


Anna Halprin

At the time of the workshop, five women had recently been murdered on the trails of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.  In response to the “Trailside Killer,” the Marin County sheriff closed all the Mt. Tamalpais trails.

Mt. Tam

Mt. Tamalpais

The workshop participants desperately wanted to express their feelings and reclaim their mountain.  Anna chose ritual dance to accomplish those desires.

In and On the Mountain

Anna led the participants in the creation of a two-part dance—In and On the Mountain.  The symbolic intention was to capture the killer and bring peace to Mt. Tamalpais.  The first day, the group met at the College of Marin and ritually enacted the capture of the Trailside Killer.

The next day, the dancers and the witnesses, along with the families of some of the victims, challenged the Trailside Killer directly by going to the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. Special permission was obtained from the sheriff, and a sheriff’s department helicopter blared overhead to protect the participants. The large group walked down Mt. Tamalpais, making offerings and planting seedlings at each place where a killing had taken place.

Within a few days after In and On the Mountain, an anonymous phone tip led to the Trailside Killer being apprehended.

Five Years

A few months after the capture, don José Matsuwa and Brant Secunda visited Anna at her studio.  With Mount Tam visible in the distance, Anna described In and On the Mountain to her visitors, and told them the Trailside Killer had been caught soon after the dance. Then she asked don José what he thought the relationship was between the dance and the capture.

Don José replied, “This mountain,” pointing to Mt. Tamalpais, “is very powerful. What you people did was important. But to be successful in bringing peace to this mountain, you must repeat the dance for five years.”

Return to the Mountain       

Anna took don José’s advice and every year returns to lead a ritual dance.  In 1983, don José traveled from Mexico to participate in Return to the Mountain.  The evening before the ritual on the mountain, Brant and don José lead us in the “dance of the deer” ceremony.  That was the event I attended with Brant and don José, where I surprisingly encountered James Nixon.

At sunrise the next morning, we gathered at the peak of Mt. Tamalpais.  After blessing everyone, don José led us around the Verna Dunshee trail that circles Mt. Tamalpais just below the peak.  Don José spoke with deep emotion as Brant translated his words.  Don José finally understood why he was supposed to come to the United States. He was meant to walk on Mt. Tamalpais with us.  Many years ago in a vision, he had seen us all walking with him around this mountain doing our dance for peace and beginning something that would expand around the world.

He said that this mountain was holy, one of the first mountains in this land.  Brant explained that the Nierika—the door to the spirit world—had opened for don José.  His physical body was walking around the mountain with us, but his spirit body was walking in the spirit world on the spirit mountain.  Don José exclaimed over and over how pleased and satisfied he was to have come here to make his offering and walk upon this mountain with us.

The Planetary Dance

Anna, now 92 years old, and her community continue to perform a ritual dance (which far exceeds the five years prescribed by don José).  Circle the Earth has evolved into The Planetary Dance. The thirty-second Planetary Dance, with the theme Peace, took place in 2012.  The theme of the ritual dance changes based on the state of the world.  In the 1980s, with the tension of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the focus was on world peace.  Later, with the challenge of the AIDS pandemic, the theme was Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line.

The Planetary Dance has been performed many hundreds of times in locations around the world.  Every Planetary Dance has as its underlying intention “A dance for peace among people and peace with the Earth.”

Anna and SK

Anna Halprin with Spencer Koffman

Planetary Dance as Group Mind

The corner stone of the Planetary Dance is the Earth Run.  Anna Halprin created the Earth Run as a moving mandala (which I see as a weaving web).  It is a beautiful participatory example of movement (dancers walking and running) creating structure (concentric circles).

The organizing is coordinated at the collective level.  It is a group dance, not a dance of individual expression.  What is essential is the whole group’s motion creates a pattern.  Each person is a cell in the larger body of the dance, and by following the prescribed route and keeping to the pulse of the drumming; each individual becomes part of a greater whole.  The individual parts (each dancer) aren’t as essential as the organizing pattern, the moving mandala that is the group mind.

The goal is to congeal as a group, then allow the emergent group mind to express itself.  It is not about each individual part expressing their individuality.

A group mind or pattern emerges out of individual dancers moving in unison.  This group mind has a life of its own (just as a body made up of cells has a life of its own).  The group mind has its own consciousness, energy, and creativity.

Each Earth Run is different because it has a life of its own.  The “jazz” (the living process that happens within the structure) occurs at the level of the group mind.  It is not a bunch of individuals doing their own thing.  It is the group body, mind, and energy expressing itself through its parts (the dancers).

The Planetary Dance group mind is a structure that has a consciousness with a history.  Just as other institutions, like the United States of America or Apple (the tech company, not the fruit) have a group mind with a history, beliefs, and values.  Whenever and where ever people gather to ritually dance the Earth Run, this group mind is constellated again.

Another way to think of it is like a couple.  The two people have their own lives, but the life of the couple is activated when they interact.  When they come together, the amalgam consciousness and energy that neither alone possesses, occurs.  Every couple has a shared culture and history.

Just like that couple, when the Planetary Dance is awakened; its culture, consciousness, and energy come to life.  Unlike the couple, the Planetary Dance doesn’t depend on the particular people, but rather it is the ritual dance that awakens it.