Posted by: Dr Martha Eddy | February 12, 2008

Anna Halprin’s Peace Dance

Ritual Keeper: An Interview with Anna Halprin

Anna Halprin’s mid-’70s real-life bout with cancer forced her to focus on the power of the ritual material she was using in choreography and teaching. Her new ritual art work emerged in 1981 as a group dance to reclaim Mt. Tamalpais, the San Francisco Bay area landmark where Halprin lived and taught, and which had been the site of murders of women hikers by “The Trailside Killer.” The result was a large group dance that was followed, a few days later, by the capture of the killer. The concept of the dance was expanded, and has been performed by large groups throughout the world, with the intent of experiencing and bringing about world peace. Halprin is interviewed here by Janice Steinberg, a San Diego-based writer who participated in Circle the Earth: A Dance in the Spirit of Peace when Halprin visited her city in 1986. This is excerpted from a longer piece. —Eds.

Janice Steinberg: You had such skill in the peace dance, as if you’re part dancer and part shaman, with the ability to take care of people’s emotional needs as they arose. When you’ve got 100 people, how do you make it work for them emotionally, if you’re working with material that’s so real?

Anna Halprin: This skill is the result of years of very careful development of process. To ask people to be authentic and to deal with real life issues, I had to develop real understanding about how to work therapeutically. I did a lot of Gestalt training. I did a lot of training in how to facilitate. I had to learn a lot about the nature of movement itself. I’m dealing with the power of movement and what happens when you move and you release authentic movement; how do you structure that? How do you work with structure? How do you work with the balance between structure and freedom?

When I had cancer ten years ago I realized there was an element that was being released that I wasn’t processing and directing, I wasn’t channeling it. I stopped performing, and all I did was develop the understanding of the kind of work I had been doing. This was now a message, part of the spirit world calling me. I wasn’t just playing around with the little hardware in the theater; I was playing around with my life. I was playing around with spirits that were calling and saying, “Hey, knock knock? You’re getting too deep, and what’s going on?” I began to call on scientists, doctors, and just did a whole lot of research. I realized I was working with ritual, and didn’t know it. I was working with the body as myth, and I didn’t know it. I was working with parts of the body as symbols, and I didn’t know it. I was working with symbols, myths and rituals, and I didn’t know what I was doing.

Let me tell you, it’s been hard work and I’ve almost died in the struggle. I’ve been my own laboratory. To be a shaman is not an easy thing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not psychic power. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of research, and I take it very seriously. I don’t release things with people unless I know how to process them.

JS: On a similar note, I’m interested in the way you clearly became choreographer on the last day of the workshop—we were supposed to break for lunch at one, and you didn’t let us break till three because we just weren’t getting it the way you wanted.

AH: Somebody made a beautiful remark—rather than choreographing, being very clear about a structure that would liberate your creativity. By not having a structure, at a certain point you would just not be able to cooperate together. In order for you to feel totally confident and feeling your power, it needs to be really clear about what the structure is, so you’re able to have the freedom to be creative and be totally expressive. I didn’t feel that I was coming in to choreograph, as much as I was coming in to be your ritual-keeper and say: Here’s your structure, let’s make sure that you’re all in agreement around it, and that this is a structure that will really work for all of us to get what we want. I don’t wince a bit taking power and using it when I feel that that power will empower others.

JS: There are a lot of things happening nationally and internationally for peace at this time. How do you see Circle the Earth in relation to them?

AH: There’s a lot going on now about dancing for peace, or for the benefit of peace. I think that what this is attempting to do, which I think is a little different, is that we’re attempting to create a peace dance. The way people work together in learning to do this dance is itself an example of how a community can work together in a strong effective, peaceful manner. Nobody was put down; everybody was heard; everybody had a chance to express themselves. Isn’t it astonishing that a full-length work of art for peace can be created in such a short time when people work peacefully together?

Then, the dance is dealing with how to find peace in yourself as well as injecting it in the world. First we emerge from the earth and we say, “Here we are, strong, and we come from the earth.” Then we say, “Look at all our differences: How can we bring those differences together and become a strong unified community?” Then we say, “Now that we have the strength and the support and the trust, how can we look at the ugliest, the most evil part of ourselves?” That is hard. And we did. And we did it so totally that we were unashamed to cry in front of an audience.

Do you know that people still think that crying was an actor’s job? Isn’t that unbelievablethat people would unfold themselves, be so vulnerable?

We fought, and then we released this evil. We were able then to take the same forces that create evil and transform those forces and create something more peaceful. We went through the bridge; we took the audience with us, and we said, “We’re ready now to move to another space.” We did the Chief Seattle Run; we said, “We can all join together, we can run together and make our peaceful steps heard. We can put out our visions for peace. We have gone through our own ordeal, and then we can turn it into the song and send these peaceful messages out through the image of the bird.”

The dance was itself an unfolding of a mythological peace statement, so it wasn’t about peace, was it? We went through what it takes to go through to find peace within ourselves, and then unite to send that peace out. And we did it in a peaceful way. So the whole thing is around peace, not for peace, or about peace, but experiencing peace.

JS: What comes next? Do you already have plans for a new project, or are you still totally involved in the peace dance?

AH: I’m right here now with the peace dance: understanding it more consciously—being open to it growing and developing in richer ways, and being available to go wherever we’re called to take it. Hopefully I see the circle growing, growing, growingthat’s what I’d like to see—how can we nurture this process. Let’s just be open and available to see where it will take us.

An Anthology from High Performance Magazine 1978-1998
edited by
Linda Frye Burnham
and Steven Durland

This interview originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Spring 1986.




  1. Here’s the whole citation if you want to read the full left to right text

  2. Would love to read the interview above with Anna Halprin, but the categories bar on the right is obscuring the text in the right margin. Can you help, please?


  3. Hi – thanks for your interest. As I suggest above, the columns seem to shift around but I find that I can cut and paste the link or the whole article and then read it online or in Word.doc. If anyone else knows how to manipulate the print in this system I welcome your advice!

    Hope that helps!


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