Healing The Mountain

Ceremony and ritual applied to community life

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 57
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

Anna Halprin is well known in the world of dance for her pioneering work in developing movement and dance forms that speak directly to major issues in people’s lives. This article shows where that work has taken her and illustrates the potential that exists for blending art and ceremony, and for moving that combination back into the center of community life.

The In The Mountain/On The Mountain dance score that illustrates this article has been adapted from the original for IN CONTEXT. The original score is a 7 foot by 3 foot color panel with a 2nd panel underneath. It is presently on tour under the auspices of the Pratt Institute. In the original, In The Mountain is round symbolizing the sacred round house, with the mass killings being in the center corresponding to the center pole. The 4 directions and the totem icons were left out of the adaptation due to lack of adequate space.

THREE YEARS AGO my husband Lawrence and I – together with a lively, curious, and spirited community of people – launched into a project called “A Search for Living Myths and Rituals Through Dance and the Environment.” The intention was to use dance and art and an environmental perspective to reflect back to the community its own central themes and issues. The project involved the participation of some hundreds of people in seven workshops spanning a period of eight months, as well as the rehearsals of a company of dancers from Tamalpa Institute. These activities climaxed in a two-day community performance ritual in April of 1981.

Most rituals take their meaning from a myth, a story that tells something important to and about the community performing the ritual. The myth we discovered emerged when we confronted a major community issue – reclaiming Mt. Tamalpais from the grip of a murderer stalking the mountain’s trails.

The mountain has always exemplified a mythic relationship between the inhabitants of the county and the natural forces at work in the environment. This relationship stretches far back to Miwok times and continues to this day. Now these murders were terrifying the people in Marin and destroying their relationship to the mountain. The need to restore peace to the mountain was strongly felt by people throughout the community.

Some background may help in understanding our approach to these events. There is quite a long tradition of using ritual dance for the purpose of having an effect on the world. In fact, Western Civilization is one of the few cultures that doesn’t use dance in this way. As James Hurd Nixon explains in Philosophy of City Dance:

In ancient times and in traditional cultures, dance has functioned as the means by which people gathered and unified themselves in order to confront the challenges of their existence. When the members of some hunting cultures need food, they dance a hunting dance, preparing themselves for the rigors of the hunt and supplicating the divinities and the animal spirits to bless their undertaking. Often the dancers enact the whole ritual of the hunt, bringing it to a successful conclusion.

It is believed that when the dancers enter the dance they actually become the hunters and the prey. By enacting the hunt, the dancers seek to invoke a sympathetic magic by which the correct completion of the ritual ensures the successful completion of the hunt. In fact, they believe there is no difference – the hunting dance and the hunt itself are the same spiritual event seen from two different temporal angles.

Among many of the planting societies the dance rituals are also said to dissolve space and time. They allow the dancers to re-enter the sacred reality that existed before the beginning of their society. In that reality the dancers re-enact the magical events by which their divine ancestors created their people and way of life.

Dance is the most important language the people know. It is a magical language of power. It is the language of the spirits. It is the language nature understands. It is the language in which are told the myths and stories that provide the people with the correct way to make sense out of their experience. To celebrate birth and marriage, to initiate the young into adulthood, to initiate the adults into the sacred mysteries, to prepare for war, to celebrate victory or lament defeat, to heal the sick, to help the dying on their journey into the land of the dead, to maintain the life of the community on the proper path, traditional peoples sing their songs and dance their dances.

In the evolution of Western industrialized urban culture, people gradually lost the language of dance even as they lost the consciousness of spiritual and natural participation. Insulated from nature by a special world of mechanical, technological construction, Western culture has deeply disrupted the delicate fabric of life to the extent that we now face a serious threat to our continued existence. Within the culture we also confront a thorough-going dislocation growing from the same roots – manifesting in crime, disease, confusion and threat of war.

The re-discovery of the lost language of dance offers to us the very vehicle which people have traditionally used to form their cultures and face their crises, yet with an important addition. Strange to say, the dance we recover has been purified and renewed during its long burial in the West, for in a sense the ancient dances held their people captive. The tradition has to be preserved for traditional societies to survive. In a traditional society, it is probably almost as true to say that the dances create their people as it is to say that the people create their dances.

One of the great gifts of Western culture has been the development of personal creativity and the freedom to explore. Great artists, scientists, and many others have lived, discovered and taught much about the process of creation. In re-discovering the language of dance, we have the opportunity to combine the aliveness of this diverse creativity with the power and depth of ritual.


For the spirit of the mountain, we dance. For those who consider her a Holy Place, for the Miwoks, who lived beneath her, who gathered her herbs and sang her songs, we dance. And quietly we dance for those among us who lost their life on the trails, quietly we dance for them. For the trails that lead us back to the mountain and life, we dance.


Our two-part community ritual took place one evening (“In the Mountain”) and then during the next day (“On the Mountain”). “In the Mountain” was a dance performance in a traditional theater located at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais on the College of Marin Campus. The Tamalpa dancers performed dance offerings in honor of the waters, the winds, the earth, and fire. In the fire dance they enacted the violence of the victim and the killer, reversing roles until everyone embodied victim-killer. The evening’s portion of the ritual ended with a plea for restoration and peace.

After the dance, the audience and performers continued the ritual aspect of the evening by creating, in smaller groups, a “passage” to the next day’s event. The main ingredients of this passage consisted of a feast, a dream wheel, and a sunrise ceremony. (The dream wheel is a community ritual in which members of the group sleep together in a circle with their heads towards the center. The intention is to form a group vision, which is constructed collectively in the morning as members share their night’s dreams.) This passage gave people a chance to digest the theatrical experience and, for those who had not participated as performers, to become their own actors or dancers by drawing upon the performance as a source of inspiration to create their own theater the next day.

“On the Mountain” completed the ritual, with the dancers and other participants challenging the killer directly by openly walking down the mountain. The ritualized walk up to the peak, and the procession down the entire mountain to the College of Marin, with music, poetry, and bamboo poles invested with the energy of the evening’s performance, symbolized the reinvestment of hope and the rebirth of Spring. It exemplified what the whole project was about: bringing together all kinds of people to participate in the creating of myths and rituals that deeply reflected their personal and collective life issues. Ira Kamin, a journalist who participated in the walk, wrote about it in California Living:

There is something powerfully spiritual about this mountain. It is a place that seems appropriate to build what Larry Halprin calls ‘the archetypal connection between man and nature.’ This great mountain has now been withdrawn from many people’s lives by fear, and that fear still is emblazoned across some of these gentle eyes. So there is a certain sadness to the day, in the quiet and the song, in the hope and the ritual, in the courage of eighty people… Kush sings ‘Has anybody seen St. Francis? Where has he gone?’

…There are those in this Halprin party who don’t know each other and certainly the thought must occur to them: Which one of you is the killer?

Everyone is suspicious. It’s not a good feeling. Kush, which means ‘black’ in Hebrew, begins a refrain in which he sings throughout the rest of the day: ‘Life is sacred…hold fast your lands to your sacred ways.’…

Most people learn it and sing it (‘Life is sacred…’), and then there is the long slow walk down the mountain (in silence, Anna advises them, to achieve a sort of meditation). There are several stops along the way, for offerings of poems, for the planting of the eucalyptus tree, for a brief dance with Anna and five children. Wild lilac bushes gush out between walls of redwoods and pale fields of wild iris spread at the edge of the trail.

When the sun is low and the light shines through the leaves – Larry Halprin’s favorite time of the day – the group gathers near a green water tank and makes its last peace offering, animal skins, while a jet streaks by in the big sky. And then, with Anna Halprin banging the drum and almost everyone else holding a Chinese bamboo pole, the trekkers pass through the suburbs of Kentfield, making what Larry calls ‘the transmutation of the mystical and mythical into everyday life.’

There is no more wind today on the very top of this mountain. There is such stillness, such peace.

A few days later, police received an anonymous tip that ultimately led to the capture of the alleged killer. Since then, thankfully, the murders on the mountain have stopped.

The question naturally arises, to what extent did this ritual play a role in his apprehension? Did it, in some way, help create the appropriate circumstances in which this could occur? It is becoming a documented fact that one’s mental attitude can affect one’s health. Likewise, a group of people working toward a focused goal can influence the reduction of crime, the creation of rain, or the production of corn. The proper mental attitude reconnects the individual and the community with a universal source that, when used properly, can enrich, and empower the participants. Dance, singing, and ritual have been, from time immemorial, the tools for this empowerment.

Some months after these events, a 107-year-old Huichol Shaman from Mexico named don Jose visited Tamalpa Institute to perform a deer ceremony. When he heard the story of our community ritual, he said, “This mountain is one of the most powerful places on Earth. What you did was very important, but for it to be successful you must return to the mountain every year for the next five years.”

We are presently doing just as he said.

In April 1983, another theater ritual was created to keep the five-year cycle active. It was called “Return To The Mountain.” The primitive theme of animals, ones that inhabit our mountain, was used to evoke a raw power and to stay in tune with the ancient traditions of the Miwoks. Our larger intention was to develop a score that would be a workable model for transmutation from hostile war-like behavior to peaceful and constructive alliances. Our greatest challenge was to find a way to ritualize the vision of peace in a mythological art form through dance.

We sought out the participation in our own community of Native American leaders and performers as collaborators. The difficult question of how to work with traditional ethnic dance and modern theater was answered in a new way. The pitfall of being imitative and derivative was avoided by having Native American performers intricately woven into the fabric of the whole ritual performance. Sacheen Littlefeather, a northern Apache, and Frank Collins, a Mescadero Apache, opened the performance with a traditional smoke purification ceremony in which cedar contained in an abalone shell, fanned with an eagle feather, was washed over each performer and then the community (audience). They did a processional two-step carrying large masks that was repeated throughout the dance and spear-headed the beginning of new sections. Don Jose returned from Mexico just in time to preside over the entire performance. He closed the performance with a Huichol Shaman blessing, and then led the community in a processional walk around the mountain peak the following day, planting an eagle feather from the Himalayas on our Mt. Tamalpais. The interplay between the traditional rituals, ceremonies, dances and chants with our own modern ritual performances was a constant reminder of the source of our theater.

We have two more years to go in don Jose’s idea of the 5-year cycle.

In the spring of 1984 and ’85 we are now planning a series of elaborate runs. Some of the running will take place on the mountain trails and fan out to various locations in the community. By choosing running, I hope to attract the interest and enthusiasm of at least 100 runners who run as part of their daily ritual and incorporate their energy into the performance, thus magnifying its impact. There is a sense of excellence, of a supreme test of commitment, a heightened life pulse, vitality and excitement in the art of running. I envision the runners as messengers sending life- giving prayers for peace.

It is our hope that by 1986 we will be ready to join forces with the “First World Earth Run” project and move from community to a world participation. This global project is planning to do an Olympic style passing-the-torch run with many original variations that will travel a path linking country to country around the world. They will culminate at the United Nations Plaza 8 months later where a ritual dramatization of the Earth Run will take place in various events and performances.

Out of this process we may be able to find dance and art forms strong enough, and creative and flexible enough, to help us make it through this era of crisis and war into a time of harmony and dynamic exploration – a time of creative peace.

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