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The Planetary Dance (James Hurd Nixon)

The Planetary Dance (James Hurd Nixon)

James Hurd Nixon is a pioneer in numerous ways, specializing in socially just, sustainable economic devleopment. Read the full version of this piece here


Planetary Dance – A Story

This is not “THE” story of the Planetary Dance. Everyone who dances the Planetary Dance comes away with their own version of its story and they add to that story every time they dance the dance again.

I am telling this story now, because I have participated in the Planetary Dance and the events that led to its creation since the beginning and, for many years, I have told a version of this story as one of the offerings at the Planetary Dance on Mt. Tamalpais

 Anna Halprin, circa 2012 ( KALW.org ). 

Anna Halprin, circa 2012 (KALW.org). 

In and On the Mountain

In 1980, Anna Halprin—already one of America’s leading dance pioneers—and her husband, Lawrence, a renowned landscape architect, undertook a workshop in Marin County, California, called “A Search for Living Myths and Rituals Through Dance and the Environment.”

At that time women were being murdered on the trails of Mt.Tamalpais in MarinCounty. The “Trailside Killer” had just claimed his fifth victim. In response, the MarinCounty sheriff closed all the trails on Mt. Tamalpais to the public and posted warning signs all around the mountain’s feet to keep people out.

The participants in Anna and Larry’s workshop identified Mt. Tamalpais as the environmental, recreational, and spiritual center of Marin County. Their feelings of fear, rage, and impotence in the face of the killings burst out. They desperately wanted to do something to express their feelings and somehow to reclaim their mountain.

Over her life, Anna had experienced glimpses of the power of ritual dance—a dance done to accomplish a purpose. She turned to ritual dance, as a way to accomplish what the workshop participants wanted.

Anna led the participants in the creation of a two-part dance—In and On the Mountain, which had the intention of symbolically capturing the Trailside Killer and bringing peace to Mt. Tamalpais.  In the Mountain took place in the theater at the College of Marin overlooked by Mt. Tamalpais.

The Mountain Dedication:
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 who were among us
And who lost their lives on her trails.
Quietly we dance for them. 
For the trails that lead us back to the Mountain,
For life and peace, we dance.”  
     —James Cave

The dancers invoked the spirits of the Waters, the Earth, the Winds, and Fire.  Then they enacted the myth of Tamalpa—the Native American princess who was put to sleep at the beginning of this time of troubles hundreds of years ago and who can still be seen lying asleep along the crest of the mountain. When this era is over, Tamalpa is destined to awaken and bring about a time of peace and reconciliation.

At the end of In the Mountain, a dancer enacting the role of the killer burst through the audience, ran up onto the stage, and raged about until the other dancers rose up, surrounded him, ritually captured him, and liberated the Mountain.

On the Mountain completed the dance next day. The dancers and the witnesses, along with the families of some of the victims, challenged the Trailside Killer directly by going to the peak of Mt. Tamalpais. Special permission had been obtained from the sheriff, and a sheriff’s department helicopter flew overhead because of fears that the Trailside Killer might strike again. The large group openly walked down Mt. Tamalpais, making offerings and planting seedlings at each place where a killing had taken place.

Within a few days of the first dance, an anonymous phone tip led to the capture of the Trailside Killer. Thankfully, there have been no killings on Mt. Tamalpais since then.

Return to the Mountain

A few months after the Trailside Killer was captured, Don Jose Matsuwa, a 106-year-old shaman of the Huichol people, visited Anna at her studio located on one of the shoulders of Mt. Tamalpais. He and his associate Brant Secunda had come to give a workshop and perform a Dance of the Deer ceremony. During Don Jose’s visit, Anna described In and On the Mountain to him and told him that the Trailside Killer had been captured soon after the dance. Then she asked him what he thought the relationship was between the dance and the capture.

Don Jose replied, “This mountain,” pointing to Mt.Tamalpais, “is very powerful. What you people did was important. But to be successful in bringing peace to this mountain, you must repeat the dance for five years.”

Anna accepted Don Jose’s assertion and decided to continue for the next five years and invited a group of her students and friends to join in the process. She called the dance the following year Return to the Mountain. 

We were very fortunate that Don Jose was able to travel from Mexico to participate with us in Return to the Mountain. The dance began with an evening performance. The next day, hundreds of people braved the stormy weather to come to the top of Mt.Tamalpais. Anna, Don Jose, and Brant Secunda arrived a little late. Don Jose appeared as a little man dressed in shimmering colors, looking out from under a broad-brimmed hat with many tassels. His body appeared straight but very old. His eyes were ageless, sometimes piercing out into the physical environment around him, sometimes drawing back to look inward.

After blessing everyone, Don Jose led us around the trail that circles Mt. Tamalpais just below the peak. As the walk continued, Don Jose began to speak with deep emotion. As Brant translated, we learned that Don Jose had said that he finally understood why he was supposed to come to the United States now. He was meant to come to walk on Mt. Tamalpais with the group of us. He realized that, many years ago in a vision, he had seen us all walking with him around this mountain doing our dance for peace and beginning something that would expand around the world.

He said that this mountain was holy, one of the first mountains in this land. When the land was made, Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth and Elder Brother Bear made this mountain sacred and they met here with many holy people and elders and they gave many teachings about this land and how to live here and how to come to them and learn from them.

Brant explained to us that, as we walked, the Nierika—the door to the spirit world—had opened for Don Jose. His physical body was walking around the mountain with us, but his spirit body was walking in the spirit world on the spirit mountain. Don Jose exclaimed over and over how pleased and satisfied he was to have come here to make his offering and walk upon this mountain with us.

At the completion of the walk, naturalist Annie Prutzman told us that modern science agreed with much of what Don Jose had said. Mt. Tamalpais was one of North America’s oldest mountains. It had been thrust up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean when the continental shelf had come together with the great moving rock plates below the Pacific along the San Andreas fault. She said that some plants and small animals living on Mt. Tamalpais are extraordinarily ancient and not found anywhere else on Earth. She told us that we were standing directly upon rock that had formed and lived for many millions of years below the ocean.

Just as Annie finished, the rain that had held off all morning began to fall. Some questioned whether we should brave the brief climb to the very top of the mountain, but many of us went on to the top. As we arrived, the clouds around us drew back slightly and a cone of sunlight shone down directly on us and we danced our dances and sang our songs and made our offerings in the ring of light surrounded by the blowing clouds around us.

Circle the Earth

Anna and her community continued to do a dance each year—following Return to the Mountain with Run to the Mountain and then Circle the Mountain. As the end of the five years prescribed by Don Jose approached, Anna and her community of dancers considered where to take the dance...


Read the rest of this piece at PlanetaryPhilosophy.com


Images from Planetary Dances past: 

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 Painting of Mt. Tamalpais  from 1870 . 

Painting of Mt. Tamalpais from 1870

Regeneration Ruckus (Deborah Kennedy)

Regeneration Ruckus (Deborah Kennedy)

Rising From The Ashes (Amie Stone King)

Rising From The Ashes (Amie Stone King)