The Planetary Dance: Using Somatic-Centered Art to Heal Communities and the Earth

Planetary Dance

An Interview with Daria Halprin, somatic/expressive arts therapist, author, teacher, dancer, actress, and co-founding Director of Tamalpa Institute; conducted by Bioneers Arts Coordinator, Polina Smith.

POLINA SMITH: Daria, could you tell us a bit about the history of Planetary Dance?

DARIA HALPRIN: It is a story that has evolved over time. Here are the highlights:

From 1979 to 1981 six women were murdered on Mt Tamalpais in Marin County, California.  These tragedies threatened the sense of safety in our entire community.  Mt. Tamalpais is a beloved part of our landscape, a place where for generations families have hiked, picnicked, celebrated holidays and held special ceremonies together. The mountain is considered sacred by Indigenous peoples in this region and beyond. The park service finally had to close down the trails because people could no longer safely hike on the mountain.

My father, the environmental designer Lawrence Halprin, and my mother, the dancer Anna Halprin, often collaborated on various projects combining art, the environment and community activism.  During the time of the murders, they were collaborating on a series of workshops and performance rituals called A Search for Living Myths. They decided to include a participatory ritual to enact the reclaiming of the mountain. The ritual performance was carried out over several days, culminating in a community walk, and prayer offerings on the trails of the mountain.

 What was important about the ritual was that it was created in response to a collectively experienced trauma. It took feelings of helplessness and rage and brought the community together in an act of courage and resilience to collectively confront the tragedy and reaffirm life.

POLINA: So how did it evolve after that?

DARIAAnna and her work were well known and a magnet for artists, students and healers – people from around the world with diverse interests and backgrounds. Word of the Mt. Tamalpais ritual spread, and the renowned Huichol teacher, Don José Matsuwa, [it was said he was 109 years old} came to visit Anna at our family home and dance studio. He told Anna that her ritual had been successful, and that she needed to repeat it for five years.

Anna committed herself to holding the event yearly for five years, but she made some artistic changes to the original piece as she developed a more expansive vision. Those changes evolved into the Planetary Dance. She named the new ritual Circle the Earth, with a vision to expand beyond Mt. Tamalpais and Marin County, creating a peace dance that would travel to communities around the world. There would always be the underlying, universal theme of dancing for peace, but there would also be a particular theme that each group in each locale would choose, depending on what was happening in that community. It was designed to be a form of engaged art activism.

 The centerpiece of the dance is the Earth Run. It draws from Indigenous dance and ritual traditions. There are three concentric circles that move clockwise and counterclockwise around a group of drummers. The outer circles are the faster runners. The inner circle surrounds the drummers and is for slow walkers, elders and those with physical limitations. Drummers hold the center and drum for the entire run.

The ritual begins with words of welcome, reflections on the theme and the community challenge. There are artistic offerings in the form of song, poetry, and blessings. Participants each declare an intention with a shout, arms and hands shooting into the air. They each dedicate the run to a person or an issue that matters to them, for  example: I run for my granddaughter and for the equal rights of all women and girls.

As the ritual draws to a close, participants kneel to the ground to symbolically plant their dedications into the earth. They then sit back to back in silence and share their experiences. A group procession out of the space marks the conclusion of the ritual, and then the community celebrates and socializes.

The Planetary Dance has taken place in over forty countries every year since 1985. It has become one of the traditions of Tamalpa Institute and its student body. We celebrated our 40th Planetary Dance this year. This is also the year Anna turned 100 years old, and many Planetary Dances were performed in her honor.

With the onset of the pandemic, we were not able to hold our annual Planetary Dance in person on the mountain. I decided to take it online. With my son, Jahan Khalighi, and supported by Tamalpa Institute and the Planetary Dance committee, I facilitated our first online presentation of the ritual in July on Anna’s birthday in acknowledgement of Black Lives Matter.

POLINA: How did that work logistically?

DARIA: It was difficult to imagine how we would capture a sense of ritual and a genuine feeling of embodied community connection in a virtual format. I called in a group of Planetary Dance artists to film their offerings which transmitted the soul and spirit of the dance. In addition to extensive pre-production planning and technical maneuvering, what made the project possible was the shared passion and desire to be together in community around a global challenge that we all cared about deeply.

Close to one thousand people participated online. They did the ritual in pods, in families, and in partnerships. They did it solo in their backyards, in their bedrooms, and in their living rooms. We had a nursery school teacher participate with her class of little ones running around outdoors. It was a remarkable experience. I felt how blessed we are to have this extraordinary resource to connect to each other virtually through time and space. Everyone brought a sense of gratitude to the ritual – gratitude to have a way to be and to act together in the creative spirit of community during the COVID pandemic, and to run in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

POLINA: With your online workshops and trainings, and with the Planetary Dances, are you able to get people from different places, people who normally wouldn’t be able to attend?

DARIA: Yes, and that is exciting. Initially I was deeply concerned for the work of Tamalpa Institute and how we would sustain it. It seemed like an insurmountable loss not to be able to be in person in our studio, near to nature at the base of Mt Tamalpais. I could not begin to imagine how to engage in embodied movement work and expressive art therapy without the pivotal element of in person exchange and group interaction. I really wondered how we would find the depth, the mystery and magic that we experience when we move, when we make art and process together in our studio. The learning community and group life is central to our work. I worried that the life changing challenges, insights and resources we encounter when working together would be missing.

The change from in person to online hasn’t been easy and it certainly is a significant change, but it has yielded unexpected gifts. Accessibility and diversity have increased. People who had not been able to participate before because of time, distance, finances, etc. are now able to participate at different levels of engagement. We are reaching many more people in our workshops and training programs than previously, and we are learning how to translate and deliver our work in a new kind of studio space. I am surprised and touched witnessing how committed, focused, and expressive people are in our online offerings. It’s as if a wave of determination and commitment has brought us closer together with greater appreciation. I can see that our practice in somatic expressive arts makes us resilient. It’s a new kind of magic.

POLINA: Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing, growing up in this extraordinary family with all this visionary work around you?

DARIA: My life was infused with an immense amount of creativity, art and cultural engagement. My father, Lawrence Halprin, was a landscape and environmental designer. His environmental philosophy, his thinking on culture, nature and social systems, his innovative workshop model and approach to collective creativity were profound influences on his field, and on my world view and my work. I was trained in integrative dance and performance by my mother, Anna Halprin. Both my parents worked internationally. Throughout my childhood I toured as a performance artist, and traveled with my father on his working trips in Europe and the Middle East. Raised in the creative work of both my parents, I was shaped and educated by their collaborations connecting environment, dance, performance and community workshopping. This legacy has informed my work as an artist, teacher and therapist. I have felt a great responsibility to carry it forward, and also to shape an approach and body of work that forges pathways bridging the expressive arts, education, somatic psychology and community healing. My interests and calling drew me to psychology, to research how we embody personal, cultural and family narratives. I wanted to explore and develop an approach using creative arts and group process as a form of individual, group and community therapy.

POLINA: You have had such a deep history in socially engaged arts. What role do you think art can play in social justice movements today, and how can it best do that?

DARIA: When we started in the 1960’s we were outliers. Today the work of healing artists is blossoming and I see that the impact and value of art as a healing force is much more widely appreciated, accepted and has joined many like minded fields.

When we’re in trouble as individuals and communities we lose connection with soul. Expressive art reconnects us to our soul and to the soul of the world.  Dance and the expressive arts are a universal language that crosses boundaries  and bridges differences. It inspires and teaches us how to express ourselves honestly and communicate nonviolently. In art we are able to symbolically and metaphorically dance with the shadow and the difficulty of being human. Art shines light on the darkness.

Since the beginning of time and in all cultures art, has been used for healing, to affirm community, and to navigate the great mysteries of nature and the universe. It has that power in our lives today. We need to find ways to translate that power to meet the challenges, the realities and the existential threats of the modern world and modern people.

I believe that art as a community participatory experience is a way for us to learn about what it means to be a human being in relation with other human beings, in relation to our environment.

POLINA: What does it mean to be a human being?

DARIA: Wow, well that is the perennial question. To lean into an artist’s perspective, I am reminded of the Leonard Cohen quote, “Don’t try to make the perfect offering, there are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I think of being human in that way. We are cracked, and when we are able to dance artfully with our experience, we become more human. We need embodied ways to live with the cracks and in the cracks. Art can help us do that. This being human is painful and joyful. The expressive arts can provide us with a way to explore that question. It provides us with a healthy way, and a healing medicine that permits us to be with the full spectrum of what it means to be a human being.

POLINA: What is your perspective on what it means to be an ally and how we can do that well?

DARIA: I am asking myself that question, more than feeling that I have answers to it.  I’m learning to listen more carefully, to examine my own privilege, my concepts around helping and my implicit biases. I am learning more about the issues I need to understand, and what kind of meaningful ally-ship I can offer through the Tamalpa Institute.  As I searched for a way to create allyship,  I felt compelled to do something to reach out further beyond the walls of the Tamalpa studio and bring the work we had developed into more  diverse community settings and underserved populations.  I wanted to create an initiative that would actively engage and support students of our work in service around the globe.

I initiated a branch of the Institute called the Tamalpa Art Corps. The ArtCorps program supports scholarships for people of color and community activists to train at the Institute, and provides supervision mentorship to develop and implement fieldwork projects around a specific social issue. For example, we sponsor students from our training programs to take our work in dance and expressive arts therapy to India every year to work with child survivors of the sex trafficking industry.

I feel committed and excited about passing the torch of the work that Anna and I have developed to a next generation of socially engaged somatic educators and healing artists.

POLINA: What is your vision for the future of the Institute?

DARIA: I believe that it is important for the work at Tamalpa to continue to evolve and change with the times. While it is rich in legacy and has held a unique and pioneering place in the field of dance and expressive arts therapy, I would like to see it forge new paths, and build new bridges into diverse communities. I hope the next generation of leaders will use our work to ask relevant questions, and create embodied participatory rituals and art works that meet the challenges ahead.

POLINA: On an ending note, Daria, I’m wondering if you have any advice to young artists during this time?

DARIA:  Be careful of burnout. Very often in the process of being a working artist, we don’t carve out enough time for ourselves to do our own art and to keep growing as artists. Immerse yourself fully in your own art. What helps me find ways to be present with myself and to be present for others is to use my art for my own soul searching and healing. I encourage artists to practice their own soul searching art. That will teach them how to be with other people and serve in an authentic embodied way.

Collaborate. Find your community so that you’re not alone with the weighty responsibility of being a socially engaged artist. As elders, many of us are aware from our own life experiences that turning the kind of work you believe in and love into right livelihood is a challenge. Young artists need to figure out how to sustain themselves. There is strength and support in numbers. Find your colleagues in the mission.

POLINA: Thank you so much, Daria. Is there anything else you would like to share?

DARIA: Well, I would like to share a taste of the artistic offerings of our online Planetary Dance.  I want to keep expanding the community  circle and invite people to visit the Tamalpa Institute website, to see what our work is and what offerings we have.  Now that we are online, it is very easy to join and participate. 

Thank you Polina for inviting me to lead Planetary Dance at Bioneers last year, and to join again this year in this way.  Its an honor to join the Bioneers community.

POLINA: It was such a gift to be able to participate in the Planetary Dance last year at Bioneers.

DARIA: I’m glad. I look forward to the day when we will do it again in person.


VIDEO: We Should Dance by Jahan Khalighi  {Planetary Dance 2020}

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