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Anna Halprin’s Darkside Dance Essay

The sharp, strained movements and demonic screeching in Anna Halprin’s 1975 improvisational piece, Darkside Dance, make it is easy to understand the amount of despair Halprin went through upon hearing that she had been diagnosed with colon cancer a second time. In an interview, Halprin described her feelings regarding this diagnosis when she said, “For those of you who have cancer or have had cancer, you know how life threatening it can be. You’re unprepared suddenly to face the possibility of dying. ” Darkside Dance was the way in which Halprin released built up emotions, and as a result, she believed physical healing could occur.

She goes on to say, “My only way of dealing with any of my life’s issues was to use the arts. That helps me to move on, literally move on, helps me from just being stuck” (Halprin, 2012). The 1970’s were ultimately a time of healing; healing of a nation and it’s people. It was not until 1975 that the Vietnam War finally ceased, and the country was ailing to move forward (Bondi, 1995, p. 337). Due to a loss of faith in the leadership of our nation, citizens began looking elsewhere for solutions to their problems in the same way that Anna Halprin sought inner healing through the arts when medicine failed her.

As a child, Anna Halprin lived in Chicago with her mother and grandfather. “My very first dance experience was when I was four, seeing my grandfather pray at temple. Because he was a Hassidic Jew, he would pray by singing, jumping up and down, and flinging his arms in the air. I thought this was absolutely beautiful,” she recalled (Poynor & Worth, 2004, p. 2). Since Halprin’s first vision of dance involved watching a spiritual experience, it is no surprise that her life’s work with dance was focused upon dance as more than a form of entertainment.

Instead, she was interested in the way in which dance along with other art forms could provide healing and unity for communities (Halprin, 1995, p. 111). At the age of fifteen, Halprin began studying the techniques and vocabulary of dance revolutionaries such as Doris Humphrey, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. These world-renowned dancers began to shape Halprin and give her a new understanding of the word dance (Poynor & Worth, 2004, p. 4). They gave her a base knowledge of modern dance technique from which she was able to grow.

While training as a dance major at the University of Wisconsin, she had the opportunity to explore other subjects such as physics, anatomy, and biology. Halprin explained, “In 1940, the University of Wisconsin was the first college in the world to offer a dance major. So, in order to prove we were not just frivolous – waving scarves around and such – they approached dance from a scientific point of view” (Ross, 2009, p. 48). While these classes proved to be a challenge, they gave Halprin the ability to comprehend the way in which the human body operates.

With Halprin’s new understanding of the sciences, she began to theorize about the human body and its relationship to nature. In 1955, she established the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop at which she taught improvisational techniques on an outdoor deck. This gave her students the freedom to explore new spatial relationships while being immersed in the sights, smells, and sounds of nature. She challenged traditional dance constructs by posing questions such as “[w]hat constitutes dance? Where can dance take place? Who can be a dancer? What is the role of the viewer?

How can dance connect people to their bodies, to other bodies, and to the environment? ” (Ross, 2012). Because of her desire to concentrate on naturalistic movement, she used pedestrian movement and manipulated gestures using repetition or by prolonging movements to fuse art with everyday movement (Halprin, 2008, “artist statement”). Halprin first began to connect with her inner emotions with help from her therapist, Fritz Perls, with whom she worked closely in order to facilitate an awareness of the immediate present as well as the connection of mind and body (Ross, 2009, p. 76). Perls provided Halprin with the idea that representing one’s self along with all emotions by drawing portraits could equip a person with the means necessary to overcome life’s obstacles. Drawing these types of self-portraits, while paying attention to emotional reactions, can supply a map for the direct path into one’s body and mind (Ross, 2009, p. 303). At the age of 52, Halprin drew a portrait of herself with an “X” and a circle around it on her pelvic region. The next day, she went to the doctor and found that she had a malignant tumor on her colon.

She then had surgery and remained in the hospital for three weeks, frail and depressed. This event propelled her into searching for ways in which dance can rejuvenate and heal a body that had been damaged by disease (Ross, 2009, p. 306). Three years after surgery, Anna once again drew an image of herself that caused her aggravation. The picture looked too young and healthy, so she turned the paper over and furiously drew another image that was “black, angular, angry, and violent” (Ross, 2009, p. 07). She then became aware that she was bleeding internally, a sign cancer had returned. She called the doctor and he told her to come immediately, but she asked for another month before another surgery because she needed to dance (Ross, 2009, p. 307). As Eric Foner points out in his book, Give Me Liberty! : An American History, Richard Nixon’s inability to get away with his involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate Scandal confirmed that the president was not above the law.

Liberal and conservative views were reinforced after this crisis and Foner acknowledges this by saying, “the revelations of years of governmental misconduct helped to convince many Americans that conservatives were correct when they argued that to protect liberty it was necessary to limit Washington’s power over American’s lives” (Foner, 2011, p. 1016). In opposition to the activism of the 1960s, Americans began to focus their attention inward in the 1970s. The pressures of activism became too great of a burden for Americans. Therefore it is no surprise that the 1970’s were coined as the “Me Decade” (Bondi, 1995, p. 37).

American’s during this time were consumed by philosophies of self-fulfillment and were described as self-absorbed and passive. This narcissistic era lead to a rise of self-indulgence. During the 1970s there was a shift from the political activism to psychological analysis. As Victor Bondi states in his book, American Decades: 1970-1979, “Everyone, it seemed, had an analyst, adviser, guru, genie, prophet, priest, or spirit. ” Bondi also points out that, “lifestyles reflected the desire to escape from the stream of bad news flowing from the television and the newspaper. The media’s excessive coverage of the Watergate scandal, the oil crisis, the recession, and the Vietnam War foisted doubt upon the American public, not only in their leaders, but also in the security of the country as a whole (Bondi, 1995, p. 338).

As a response, there was a steady increase of drug and alcohol abuse, rock music, sex, and the “hippie” persona. Though the entire nation may not have found dance to be their “healing power,” much of the population began exploring these other options through which they could find peace (Bondi, 1995, p. 37). The method of peace seeking and healing may have differed from Halprin’s, but the intent was the same. Though this is a seemingly accurate accusation, the 1970’s also posed an alternative way of living. This was the time of “The Fitness Craze” when more and more American’s were beginning to increase their physical activity for a plethora of reasons including stress, the aspiration to be physically fit, and to better the overall health of the individual.

They began to better themselves with activities such as aerobics, dancing, isometrics, stretching, jogging, walking, bicycling, swimming, and yoga (Bondi, 1995, p. 409). Americans were also interested in consuming organic foods and products which adds to the idea that they were uncomfortable with others handling such an important part of their lives (Bondi, 1995, p. 338). Anna Halprin’s life not only mirrored this kind of inwardly focused lifestyle, but also revolutionized it.

She strived to be healthy, as did society, all due to a loss of faith in leadership in general. The political crises portrayed in the media were like a cancer to the American public, it began to suck the life right out of them. With the battle of cancer, there are two choices, to die or to live. Though Anna Halprin was fighting the physical battle of cancer, and the public was struggling with metaphorical cancers, and they chose to live in the only ways they knew. They were moving forward, fighting the dark side with light, and bringing upon themselves a new dawn.


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