Breath Made Visible

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‘As we tap into the deep sources of bodily wisdom through creative art expression,
we dance the renewal, recreation, and healing of ourselves and our world.’
(Anna Halprin)

We walk about 100 stairs down before we enter the room. We come in late as she is already sitting on her chair, gently whispering instructions to the people lying on the floor. The space is big and beautiful, all made in wood and existing out of four large windows that look right over a giant redwood forest. My friend, Monique from Marin County, and I put our valuables on the side, and lay ourselves down as well. I hear her saying: “Feel the energy flowing through your body as you gently breathe in and out.” No thought can resist her soft yet clear voice. Gradually, I surrender to the floor and to relaxation. Sinking deeper into my body, I experience excitement softening my (usually multi-tasking, busy) mind. Oh, how happy and honored I am to be in Anna Halprin’s “Mountain Home” dance studio!

Anna Halprin, born on 20th July 1920 (!!), has dedicated her life to dance ever since she can remember. For her, dance is a way of coping with feelings and emotions that come up, with which she has no other way of coping except through dance. “Things that have happened to me, happen to anybody in a lifetime. Moments of celebration and moments of panic, moments of fear and moments of great sorrow. I’ve always been able to use dance as a way to resolve whatever has come up for me in my life.”

Anna Halprin has become world-famous because of her pioneering work in the expressive arts healing movement. In her work and her life, she makes use of the healing power of dance. “I developed a proces called the Life Art Proces. As your life expands, your life deepens. And as your life experience deepens, your art expands. I created philosophies and methods that helped me navigate those issues into a dance experience. And that has been somewhat of a unique approach to dance. By now it is growing into what they call Expressive Education. If I create my own dances, it is always in collaboration with all the art forms. And thus my daughter, Daria and I developed a program called Expressive Arts Education. It is dance oriented, but the other art forms can grow out of it or grow into it. That has been my life’s work.”

Breath made visible
As I am lying there focusing on my breath, I hear Anna asking us to massage our pectoral muscles (situated at the chest). “Many of us are very tensed in these muscles, especially if we do a lot of work on the computer”, Anna says, adding: “If we are sitting behind a computer, it is best to find ways to compensate. If I sit still for half an hour, I want to reconstruct that movement.” As I can feel myself unwinding more and more, I also catch myself thinking about our every day lives. And about how we have unlearned to make use of our bodies in the capacious ways they were designed for. Anna suggests focussing ourselves on opening up this part of our body, and by doing so, discovering ways of realeasing our daily stresses. I start stretching my arms and shoulders while making small growling sounds. “Balance, it’s all about finding balance,” I catch myself thinking almost out loud. The more I feel myself softening, the more I am becoming focused and conscious of what is going on around me. My awareness starts shifting into a different realm, one in which time expands and space broadens. My breath becomes deeper and I am being reminded of Anna’s definition of dance: “Breath made visible”. My breath is like a compass or a North Star: its constant stream of motion allows me to connect myself and my body to the motion in and around me.

The music starts playing and we begin to explore movement through space. Anna asks us to imitate others, to pick up movements of others and make them our own. I see people passing by – blurs of eyes, feet, arms and hip movements are entering my visual realm – and allow my body to follow what attracts its attention. I shift from fast to slow to fast movements, like a drop of water flowing with the current of a streaming river. My consciousness of self and body become one whole in this contact with others. A minute becomes an eternity, and in one blink of an eye, two hours have gone by. We gently unwind, stretching ourselves onto the floor again. Anna gives us paper and a simple instruction: “Draw whatever comes up for you.” Words start floating onto my paper. Creation is what I am made of and who I am.

So much more
We come together in a closing circle and share our drawings and creations. We all shared the same dance (space), and yet, everyone of us has another story to tell, another experience to communicate. Some people have experienced great bodily pleasures, others felt free of worries. Another friend of mine felt disconnected throughout the entire evening. There is no good or wrong. It’s all about paying attention to the current moment. About listening to what is being shared. And about putting into movement what wants to be expressed. When it’s my turn, I read aloud my freshly written poem “So much more” with a slightly nervous yet exhilarating tone:

“As the music is flowing through my body,
Landscapes of feelings and mechanics melt together,
Creating a mountain on which I find myself
dancing, opening and enjoying.

When the time has come to end the class, Anna’s eyes find mine: “You wanted to ask me some questions.. I have half an hour, will that be enough?”

As I follow Anna towards her chair, I notice her beautiful dance room. The Mountain Home Studio is an astonishing place of creativity. Located in the west slope of Mount Tamalpais, it was designed by Arch Lauterer (lightning designer for Martha Graham) in collaboration with Lawrence Halprin (Anna’s husband and landscape architect). The outdoor deck was built in 1948, and the indoor studio was added in 1950. Lots of experimental movement workshops and performances were given and created here, and many well-known artists saw the beginning of their career here (such as dancers Simone Forti and Trisha Brown, and poet James Broughton). Anna believes there is a field of energy here that keeps growing, while – bringing the past into present – giving this space its particular beauty and sacredness. It is a magical place for sure.

Legacy beyond death
We sit down (Anna puts herself in her director’s chair) and I ask her my most favorite starting question: “Who are you?” Anna turns her face towards mine, slightly lifts her chin and answers me softly and kind: “Ever since I can remember, I’ve danced. After years of dancing, this language has become very familiar to me.” She tells me that when she dances, she is connected to the world around her and enters a different state. She then becomes able to “put together the feedback proces between movement and motion”. Anna lifts her arm and tells me that she immediately feels a connection to the trees, purely by making that movement. While letting her weight down, she expresses her connection to the earth. Every movement creates a different feeling – and therefore a different energy – in her body. The awareness of her body in contact to nature and her surroundings have become second nature to her. Currently 93 years old, Anna Halprin is aware of the fact that she needs to take special care of her body, as dangers are lurking around many more corners for older people. “Right now, I am researching the idea of ‘beyond death’. What happens when you die? I want to find a way in doing that dance to leave a legacy. Again I am using dance to deal with the inevitable loss of life. I am 93. Even now, dance is a wonderful stimuli to keep searching. If I am going too fast, when my mind is ahead of my body, I slow down. One of the most common things with older people is falling. So I have to be alert all the time.” As I ask her how she brings her dance experience into her daily life, she compliments my question and shares a secret of what is keeping her aging body so healthy: “Hopefully going up four flies of stairs every day and having a swimming pool, I am able to keep my body functioning. Given my age, I am very aware of how I walk up on those stairs, especially in the dark. I always do it very sufficiently. I am aware of where my body is, of which muscles I am using, and of where I am putting my weight, as to make it as effortless as possible.”

Notwithstanding her age, Anna is still teaching classes and workshops in California. “I don’t have to do this. I could just be sitting, trashing hours and eating chocolate,” she tells me with a big smile. The Studio’s evening lights lit up the wrinkles in her laughing face, giving her an expression of great wisdom and generosity. She continues: ““I try to define what do elders do in other cultures. They maintain their rituals, they teach the young, they heal the sick. And so I try to fulfill what elders do. It brings me enjoyment.”

What about the children?
Given the fact that dance creates healing and peace in larger communities, we could also take that knowledge and put it into action, in our schools and in our homes. “Dance and movement can bring about great leaders,” Anna says, “I deeply believe in the power of dance. It needs to be in our school systems. For children, dance is their first language. I taught children for 25 years. I had one group that started at the age of four. I worked with them throughout high school. These kids never forgot it. Each of the children became a significant leader in whatever field they chose. They didn’t all chose to be dancers. They are very successful in their lives. It is just remarkable.”

“There’s a lot to be done out there.” Anna and her daughter Daria created a training program “Life Art Process” in the Tamalpa School. They now have branches all over Europe, and are also starting a branch in Israel. Anna is excited about these constant changing and growing processes. “I am constantly growing into the changes. I don’t know now what is going to happen tomorrow. I live in the present, while finding road maps that define my intentions and that give me methods of theoretical approach to fulfill these intentions.”

A body of nature
Anna is very committed to working in natural environments. “I am very lucky because I have an acre of first redwood trees and a beautiful natural environment where I can walk into. There are no houses around, only nature. I also have a place up by the ocean and give workshops there. Since we are a part of nature, being in nature dancing is the best way to feel the connection. We are not the center of the universe. I am so lucky to have this environment to work with. It is so nice to be outside, with the sky and the birds.”

Anna’s daughter, Daria, has been doing this work ever since she was a little girl. Growing older, Daria also studied Gestalt Therapy with Fritz Perls and Psychology. Where Daria looks at dance and art from a therapeutic background, Anna approaches humans from an objective, scientific and philosophical point-of-view. “It excites me that scientists are currently doing lots of research about the brain and about interconnectedness. They have for instance discovered that the brain has patterns that are repeated in all forms of life. This body of ours is a replica of the molecules in all living things. When you know how your body works, you have the potential of being able to generate creativity which is what art is all about. The only way to bring our body into dance, is by finding the real commonalities of patterns.”

Fighting the good fight
When Anna was 80, she was diagnosed with cancer. Anna tells me that, after she had the tumor removed, her body altered forever. This gave her an extra impetus though, to compensate for that physically. The operation had taken away lots of strength in her body. “It could have completely destroyed me. Or – as it happened – made me stronger. It made me stronger in my motivation to maintain that physical aspect of my body, and also to confront the possible loss of life. It felt like enlightenment at gun point. I like that expression. I really had to decide if I wanted to live or if I was going to let myself die. It was that urgent. Once I made the decision that I was going to live, I had to fight for it. There was always a shadow behind me, saying: ‘Remember why you are here! Remember. Why. You. Are. Here. What is your purpose.’” A moment of silence falls into our conversation. I hear the voices of my friends talking in the distance, but am feeling focused on the conversation, on the here and now. This woman is showing me the blessings of her wounds. She is taking me inside of the darkest parts of her Dance Journey, which has brought her both insights and fear. Just like every human being on this planet has the choice, Anna very deliberately made the decision to life.

Anna found ways in which she can express her pain, fears and doubts through art, creation and movement. Is is Anna’s purpose to create a pathway for others to follow – one in which dance changes lives, and creates healing? “My cancer changed my intention around dance. I founded the Planetary Dance, which has to do with peace, with finding peace within yourself and the world. With relationship and commitment. And with fighting the good fight.” The pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. So that’s one of the reasons of why Anna is still teaching. Her work is clearly not done yet. She still has so much wisdom to share with the world, and with her students (lucky us!). The good fight needs a good leader, and Anna is certainly one of them. “My greatest satisfaction is when I see people finding themselves liberated through dance. When I see how dance has given them the tools to live their lives more creatively.” Not only has Anna been committed towards sharing her wisdom of dance and body in her own home, Anna has also been traveling around the globe, sharing her messages of peace and art. “More recently I came back from Israel where I had the opportunity to do the Planetary Dance with a group of women from different religions. It was really wonderful to see Israelis and Palestinians dance together. That’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind. Dance can bring about peace.”