Anna Halprin: Dance as a Healing Art


Before I had cancer, I lived my life in service of dance, and after I had cancer, I danced in the service of life. – Anna Halprin

Anna Halprin Surrounded by Dancers in Circle the Earth, c. 1980s Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design

Anna Halprin Surrounded by Dancers in Circle the Earth, c. 1980s
Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design

The pioneer avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin knows a thing or two about the circle of life. At 95, she has enriched the lives of people all over the world with her approach to dance as a way to achieve personal and community empowerment—be it for peace, health, life, or death.

I am a cancer survivor…. Cancer is like enlightenment at gunpoint. One must face it and do something. 

In 1972, at age 52, Anna sketched a view of her body with a dark circle in her pelvis. Frightened, she went to her doctor, who found a malignant tumor of the same size and in the same place as her drawing.

When Anna discovered she had colorectal cancer, she decided to participate in her own healing process. “Intuitively,” her biographer Janice Ross has written, “she was now beginning to search for a means to link dance to rejuvenation and to unify the body severed by disease.”

Still from Dark Side Dance YouTube video,

Still from Dark Side Dance
Via YouTube

I studied myself going through my own healing process. I tried to figure out the things that gave me a sense of hope and peacefulness.

In 1975, Anna documented her process in the Dark Side Dance. She formalized it as the therapeutic Psychokinetic Visualization Process: “It is almost like dream work in dance in which your mind is constantly working but in relation to images as the concepts. How do they find images? They move their bodies, dance their feelings and then make drawings of the images that can up.”

In healing it’s not always a matter of curing, you don’t necessarily make the problem go away, but you learn a creative process to cope with the problem.

The exploration also led Anna to develop what she calls the Five Stages of Healing: “One is confronting your primary issues, the other is having the courage and the strength to confront what you’ve identified, and then the third is to release, and the fourth is the change that comes about, and the fifth is integration.” The Five Stages of Healing became the basis for Anna’s work Intensive Care, Reflections on Death and Dying.

Intensive Care, Reflections on Death and Dying Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design

Intensive Care, Reflections on Death and Dying
Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design

New directions in healing soon emerged, as Anna expanded her dance work into community healing and spiritual healing.

I think that healing has to do with becoming whole. It has to do with integration, which has to do with acknowledging aspects of your physical, emotional, and artistic self and being able to apply what you have learned to your everyday life. That is healing.

In 1978 Anna founded the Tamalpa Institute in Marin County with her daughter Daria. There she continued her work with dance as a healing and transformative art, which evolved into the Life/Art Process. To this day, the institute, which is approved by the California Department of Education, trains individuals in movement ritual and a variety of therapeutic dance and theatrical techniques.

In 1980 Anna began a series of cancer support and education workshops at the Creighton Health Institute in California. In 1986, she developed the program Moving Toward Life for people with cancer, their caregivers, and health professionals. She also choreographed the ritual Carry Me Home, performed by a group of HIV-positive participants, to help them overcome the social isolation affiliated with the disease.

Moving Toward Life Courtesy of the Tamalpa Institute

Moving Toward Life
Courtesy of the Tamalpa Institute

Carry Me Home Courtesy of Sue Heinemann

Carry Me Home
Courtesy of Sue Heinemann

In the mid-1980s Halprin began working with people with HIV and AIDS, which led to the STEPS Theatre Company for People Challenging AIDS (later called Positive Motion) and Women with Wings for Women Challenging AIDS through Dance and Ritual. Among the performance rituals created during this time was Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line, an adaptation of her community-healing dance, Circle the Earth.

Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line Courtesy of Sue Heinemann

Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line
Courtesy of Sue Heinemann

Anna’s series of workshops with an HIV and AIDS dance group in San Francisco resulted in the documentary Positive Motion (1991), a film about “creativity and community as healing forces.”

Among the many recent applications of the Life/Art Process is with seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  As one participant in the Tamalpa Institute’s professional training program has observed: “From my experiences leading expressive visual art, poetry, movement, and drama exercises at Senior Access, I conclude that Alzheimer’s patients can benefit from all of the arts in ways that allow them the widest possible range of creative input in the moment, but I observe that movement is the most empowering and seems to connect participants to their deeper feelings and imaginings.”

In 2006, Anna received an Arts & Healing Network Award “for her life-long contribution to the field of dance and healing. As a performer, choreographer, author, teacher, and founder of the Tamalpa Institute, she has introduced countless people to the transformative and healing power of dance.”

Our culture is in the throes of crisis: I have a vision of dance working in the service of healing. I invite you to join me in this quest.


Anna Halprin: 2006 Arts & Healing Network (AHN) Awardee,

Robin Carlson and Jana Cook in Conversation with Anna Halprin,

Julia Gilden, MA, “Movement/Sound-based Expressive Arts Based on the Tamalpa Life/Art Process:
A New Approach for Alzheimer’s Patients,”

Anna Halprin, Dance as a Healing Art: Returning to Health with Movement and Imagery (Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm, 2000)

Anna Halprin, Dancing My Cancer (1975),

Adair Lara, “The dance of life: Anna Halprin turns her talent into a tool for inspiration, enlightenment, healing,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 2002;  

Mindfulness in Healing,

Janice Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)

Libby Worth and Helen Poynor, Anna Halprin (London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2004)

­­­and  Worth, vement and 29, 2002

  1. HN) Awardee, power of dance.

You can learn more about Anna and her husband, the renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, at the California Historical Society’s exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 and its related programs, January 21–May 1, 2016.

“I am delighted that Experiments in the Environment will be coming to its home base in San Francisco, the home of radical, humanistic, and participatory innovation. The exhibit excites me as well because it is including a new section describing my collaboration with Larry and our work beyond the Experiments. As Larry inspired me with his sensitivity to the environment which influenced my experiments, I influenced him in my use of movement audience participation as I pioneered new forms in dance. This combined exhibition shows the impact we had on each other throughout our lives and I hope it helps people understand our work better.”

—Anna Halprin, 2015

For more information about the Life/Art Process and the Tamalpa Institute, visit and

For an example of dance and community healing, watch Planetary Dance with Anna Halprin,

For an example of dance and physical healing, watch Anna Halprin: Intensive Care,

Shelly Kale