Planetary Dance – A Story

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Planetary Dance

This is not “THE” story of the Planetary Dance. Everyone who dances the Planetary Dance comes away with their own version of its story and they add to that story every time they dance the dance again.

I am telling this story now, because I have participated in the Planetary Dance and the events that led to its creation since the beginning and, for many years, I have told a version of this story as one of the offerings at the Planetary Dance on Mt.Tamalpais.

In and On the Mountain

In 1980, Anna Halprin—already one of America’s leading dance pioneers—and her husband, Lawrence, a renowned landscape architect, undertook a workshop in Marin County, California, called “A Search for Living Myths and Rituals Through Dance and the Environment.”

At that time women were being murdered on the trails of Mt.Tamalpais in MarinCounty. The “Trailside Killer” had just claimed his fifth victim. In response, the MarinCounty sheriff closed all the trails on Mt.Tamalpais to the public and posted warning signs all around the mountain’s feet to keep people out.

The participants in Anna and Larry’s workshop identified Mt.Tamalpais as the environmental, recreational, and spiritual center of MarinCounty. Their feelings of fear, rage, and impotence in the face of the killings burst out. They desperately wanted to do something to express their feelings and somehow to reclaim their mountain.

Over her life, Anna had experienced glimpses of the power of ritual dance—a dance done to accomplish a purpose. She turned to ritual dance, as a way to accomplish what the workshop participants wanted.

Anna led the participants in the creation of a two-part dance—In and On the Mountain, which had the intention of symbolically capturing the Trailside Killer and bringing peace to Mt. Tamalpais.  In the Mountain took place in the theater at the College of Marin overlooked by Mt.Tamalpais.

The Mountain Dedication:

For the spirit of the mountain, we dance.
For those who consider her a Holy Place,
For the Miwoks who lived beneath her,
Who gathered her herbs and sang her songs,
we dance.  

And quietly we dance for those who were among us
And who lost 
their lives on her trails.
Quietly we dance for them.

For the trails that lead us back to the Mountain,
For life and peace, we dance.”        —James Cave

The dancers invoked the spirits of the Waters, the Earth, the Winds, and Fire.  Then they enacted the myth of Tamalpa—the Native American princess who was put to sleep at the beginning of this time of troubles hundreds of years ago and who can still be seen lying asleep along the crest of the mountain. When this era is over, Tamalpa is destined to awaken and bring about a time of peace and reconciliation.

At the end of In the Mountain, a dancer enacting the role of the killer burst through the audience, ran up onto the stage, and raged about until the other dancers rose up, surrounded him, ritually captured him, and liberated the Mountain.

On the Mountain completed the dance 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 had been obtained from the sheriff, and a sheriff’s department helicopter flew overhead because of fears that the Trailside Killer might strike again. The large group openly 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 capture of the Trailside Killer. Thankfully, there have been no killings on Mt.Tamalpais since then.

Return to the Mountain

A few months after the Trailside Killer was captured, Don Jose Matsuwa, a 106-year-old shaman of the Huichol people, visited Anna at her studio located on one of the shoulders of Mt.Tamalpais. He and his associate Brant Secunda had come to give a workshop and perform a Dance of the Deer ceremony. During Don Jose’s visit, Anna described In and On the Mountain to him and told him that the Trailside Killer had been captured soon after the dance. Then she asked him what he thought the relationship was between the dance and the capture.

Don Jose 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.”

Anna accepted Don Jose’s assertion and decided to continue for the next five years and invited a group of her students and friends to join in the process. She called the dance the following year Return to the Mountain.

We were very fortunate that Don Jose was able to travel from Mexico to participate with us in Return to the Mountain. The dance began with an evening performance. The next day, hundreds of people braved the stormy weather to come to the top of Mt.Tamalpais. Anna, Don Jose, and Brant Secunda arrived a little late. Don Jose appeared as a little man dressed in shimmering colors, looking out from under a broad-brimmed hat with many tassels. His body appeared straight but very old. His eyes were ageless, sometimes piercing out into the physical environment around him, sometimes drawing back to look inward.

After blessing everyone, Don Jose led us around the trail that circles Mt.Tamalpais just below the peak. As the walk continued, Don Jose began to speak with deep emotion. As Brant translated, we learned that Don Jose had said that he finally understood why he was supposed to come to the United States now. He was meant to come to walk on Mt.Tamalpais with the group of us. He realized that, 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. When the land was made, Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth and Elder Brother Bear made this mountain sacred and they met here with many holy people and elders and they gave many teachings about this land and how to live here and how to come to them and learn from them.

Brant explained to us that, as we walked, the Nierika—the door to the spirit world—had opened for Don Jose. 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 Jose 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.

At the completion of the walk, naturalist Annie Prutzman told us that modern science agreed with much of what Don Jose had said. Mt.Tamalpais was one of North America’s oldest mountains. It had been thrust up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean when the continental shelf had come together with the great moving rock plates below the Pacific along the San Andreas fault. She said that some plants and small animals living on Mt.Tamalpais are extraordinarily ancient and not found anywhere else on Earth. She told us that we were standing directly upon rock that had formed and lived for many millions of years below the ocean.

Just as Annie finished, the rain that had held off all morning began to fall. Some questioned whether we should brave the brief climb to the very top of the mountain, but many of us went on to the top. As we arrived, the clouds around us drew back slightly and a cone of sunlight shone down directly on us and we danced our dances and sang our songs and made our offerings in the ring of light surrounded by the blowing clouds around us.

Circle the Earth

Anna and her community continued to do a dance each year—following Return to the Mountain with Run to the Mountain and then Circle the Mountain. As the end of the five years prescribed by Don Jose approached, Anna and her community of dancers considered where to take the dance.

At that time, in 1985, the world had entered a period of extreme tension in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan had escalated this tension by calling the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire” and by beginning to build the “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Some of us responded to the world situation by arguing that we should undertake a dance for peace in the world, the way we had undertaken a dance for peace on Mt.Tamalpais. We discussed the possibility that In and On the Mountain had actually contributed to the capture of the killer. It might even have even been a necessary condition to bring a measure of peace to Mt.Tamalpais. We felt that it was important at least to keep our minds open to this hypothesis.

Shouldn’t we try to apply this rediscovered power of ritual dance to the task of helping to make peace in the world? Anna was resistant at first, feeling that it was arrogant for us even to attempt a peace dance. However, as the debate continued, she got an inspiration for how to proceed based on her many years of dance experience.  She guessed that if she brought together a big enough group of people, it would create a dramatic enough scale to stand up to the challenge of creating a peace dance.

Anna put it this way:

“Making a peace dance, like making peace, is not a small task. It takes the harmony of many to stop a war that only a few might begin. So our peace dance needs the willing commitment of more than two or ten, or twenty, or even fifty performers.

I am seeking one hundred performers—one hundred performers to create a circle large enough for clear images of peace to come through; one hundred performers to create a spirit voice strong enough so that our peaceful song is heard and our peaceful steps are felt.”

From this perspective, Anna created nine scores for a workshop performance called Circle the Earth. In the week-long workshop Anna taught the 100+ performers the nine scores. The evening of the first performance many hundreds of witnesses arrived, walking along candlelit pathways to a gymnasium at RedwoodHigh School below Mt.Tamalpais. When they entered the performance space, they found the 100 performers, dressed in either black or white, curled up, lying on the floor. The dance proceeded through the nine scores:

From the Earth—The dancers rose, being born into the reality of the dance, and ran forward, announcing “I am . . . and I come from . . . .”

Vortex—The dancers walked singly, in pairs, in threes, in groups, finally climbing on top of each other to build a mountain out of their bodies.

Confrontation—Lines of dancers undertook a stomping dance, facing the hundreds of witnesses who held white masks in front of their faces. One by one, preselected and carefully prepared dancers came forward through the lines, evoking and then exorcising their monsters—the killers within—and then they collapsed.

Restoration—The lines of other dancers came forward to embrace and hold and comfort the monster dancers, chanting, “Restore my breath, my breath restore; Restore my touch . . . my heart . . . my love . . . my community . . . my Earth., my Earth restore.”

Bridges and Passages—The dancers rose up and lined up facing each other. Raising their arms, they touched hands to form a passageway that all the witnesses passed through to the other side of the space.

The Earth Run—The dancers formed a circle. Then they called out “I run for…” and entered the circle and ran one way, later changing direction to run the other way, and then walking, forming a moving mandala. Finally, they came to stand in one of the four directions: north, south, east, or west.

Peace Wheel—The dancers gathered into a tight circle, raising their arms and sang out in a polyphonic harmony, while nine Peruvian whistles blew.

The Bird Transformation—The dancers extended their arms out at their sides and, transformed as birds, and ran in spirals out to the periphery of the space to acknowledge the witnesses.

Action—Each dancer made a commitment to take a specific set of actions for peace with themselves, their families, their communities, and their countries.

At the end of Circle the Earth, everyone was invited to gather at the peak of Mt. Tamalpais the next morning.

Essentially, in Circle the Earth, a community forms, evokes and exorcises the killer in us all, comforts the wounded, crosses a bridge to enact peace, and then sends that peace out into the world.

The performance of Circle the Earth was profoundly powerful.  People from around the world who participated wanted to bring it home to their communities. Anna took Circle the Earth to England, Switzerland, Israel, Australia, and at least eight different states in the U.S. Two years later Circle the Earth was performed a short distance from Berlin a few days before the Berlin Wall came down.

Dancing with Life on the Line

As tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union relaxed, Anna shifted the focus of Circle the Earth to address the challenge of the AIDS pandemic. Circle the Earth became Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line.

In Dancing with Life on the Line, Anna brought together 50 people who had AIDS, were HIV-positive, or had cancer and 50 who did not have these conditions. This time, at the beginning of the dance all the participants ran forward and called out “My name is ——— and I want to live.” (I was one of the special invited witnesses sitting in front as they ran forward.  Witnessing each of the dancers run forward and call out “I want to live” was one of the most powerful dance/theater experiences I have ever had.)

The Trailside Killer had been captured, after our dance. The Berlin Wall had come down, after our dance. So Dancing with Life on the Line began with some optimism that we might be on the side of history again. Unfortunately, it was many years before the medical discoveries that made long-term survival with HIV possible. Many of the dancers who danced in Dancing with Life on the Line and had AIDS or HIV did not live. However, as we watched many of our friends die with extraordinary dignity and grace, we learned that sometimes healing happens even if physical survival does not.

The Planetary Dance

Two years after the first presentation of Circle the Earth, Anna initiated the Planetary Dance, because many people around the world wanted to participate in the spirit of Circle the Earth but did not have the resources for the full Circle the Earth workshop performance.

Anna took the Earth Run, one of the scores from Circle the Earth, and made it the heart of the Planetary Dance. People in different places embedded the Earth Run in different preparatory activities, embraced different themes, and utilized different completion activities, but everyone performed the Earth Run.

In that first year, 1987, the Planetary Dance took place the day after Circle the Earth. That year, there were 40 different Planetary Dances in close to 40 different countries around the world. The Planetary Dance literally circled the earth, beginning in Australia and proceeding through the Americas and Europe to end in Asia.

By now, decades later, the Planetary Dance has been performed many, many hundreds of times in hundreds of locations around the world. Every Planetary Dance every year is “A dance for peace among people and peace with the Earth.“ In addition, each year the Planetary Dance has a special theme.

On Mt.Tamalpais, we have danced for an end to violence in our communities, for the healing of women with cancer, for environmental restoration, for climate protection, for the return of hope. Planetary Dancers in other places often choose their own themes for their Planetary Dances.

In 2011, on Mt.Tamalpais, the theme is “Turning Point.” We dance that the world will turn away from acts of terrorism and war and environmental destruction. We dance that the world will turn toward a peace that affirms the right of all people to live healthy lives with dignity, in harmony with the natural world.

It’s a lot to ask, yet, given the tragic situation in very many places in the world, what else can we do but ask with all the power that we can muster?

The number of Planetary Dancers is growing and a Planetary Dance Movement is beginning to emerge. Right now there are dozens of Planetary Dances and hundreds of Planetary Dancers each year.

Imagine a couple of years from now when there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of Planetary Dances with hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Planetary Dancers dancing for peace among people and peace with the Earth. Imagine that this Planetary Dance Movement contributes to the creation of a tipping point that helps the momentum in the world begin to shift from war to peace.

That would indeed be a “Turning Point.” We can help create that “Turning Point” with what we do here and now and hereafter.

Planetary Dance – Three Visions