One of my most prominent role models and mentors Anna Halprin died last week, six weeks before her 101st birthday. I know this so specifically because her birthday is the day before mine and during the years I was her student, we celebrated three or four of our birthdays together. 

I can’t say how I first heard about Anna. She was already a legend in the dance world when I was a 16 year old scholarship student at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires. Now known as a pioneer in the expressive arts healing movement, Anna, in response to the Watts Riot/Rebellion, developed an all-black dance group in LA and an all-white one in San Francisco. She brought them together in a multiracial performance about the experience. As a social work student and dancer, I read about this remarkable “Ceremony of Us” event which used dance to highlight different perspectives and culminated in the development of a newly formed and transformed community. 

Our first meeting came in the summer of 1974 when I had given myself a time out from my job as a social worker at a university health center, and from my troubled 13 year marriage. My twelve year old daughter Corinne attended a dance camp at the University of Utah with me and after dropping her off to join her two brothers and their Dad for a wilderness camp outing I decided to drive on to California to realize a long-held desire–to attend a workshop with Anna Halprin. 

Her workshops begin with “City Dance,” in a dark, sweaty dance studio in the Height-Ashbury  District of San Francisco–ground zero for the Hippie movement of the 60’s. After a week or so we travel north to her home and studio in Marin county. Here we connect with the natural world, dancing in the sunshine on her studio’s open air deck. Anna spoke of her experience with colorectal cancer – using dance and the body awareness it generated to identify it before doctors could confirm it, and then to use dance and movement rituals to heal herself and prevent a reoccurrence. In explaining how she came to this challenge she said, “I must have thought I was invincible!” Looking up at her slender figure from my position on the studio floor I thought of what I had been putting myself through lately and recognized a theme I shared with Anna and many other women. “I too must be thinking I’m invincible.” Looking back now I see how this realization led to my work on teaching, writing and practicing self-care. 

The final week was spent at the Sea Ranch, a planned community developed by her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and others. Their hope was to preserve the natural beauty of the coastline and live gently on the land.On the days when the morning fog covered the coastline we traveled inland to the Russian River where we danced beneath the trees and reclaimed our identities as part of nature and the natural world we found there. In the afternoons we’d return to the beach where the score was to act and interact with one another and the driftwood, shells and sea life found there. We constructed sculptures, delineated boundaries and containers, improvising a city on the water’s edge. Like a Buddhist sand painting it would be destroyed by nature’s natural forces but last forever precious in our memories. 

I learned so much about bodies from Anna, both my own and other people’s. Coming to her workshop after an intense week of dancing I was in strong physical condition and able to do her morning rituals full out. Often the movements would bring me to tears which puzzled me. One morning Anna noticed my tears and encouraged me by saying, “Wonderful! Wonderful! Your body is releasing.” I pointed out that nobody else is crying or releasing and she said, “They will. They will.” And yes, later on many of my fellow workshop colleagues did release in that manner.  

Coming across something Anna wrote about her own work when she was 95 I see how much of a debt I owe to her inspiration, courage and creativity. “Now more than ever in my lifetime, I see the need to redefine dance once more as a powerful force for transformation, healing, education, and making our lives whole, a dance that will speak to our needs today.” 

Please join me and the InterPlay Wing and a Prayer Pittsburgh Players as we honor Anna’s memory and use dance and interplay forms to present The Art of Grieving: Emerging Towards a Life Well-Lived. Sunday June 6th from 4 to 5:30 pm on the Reimagine platform.