by David e. Moreno
When I studied with the experimental dance pioneer Anna Halpirn, she was dancing with a colostomy bag. I was 20; she was in her late ‘50s and in the process of creating a ritual to befriend her colostomy bag—making peace with it and the colorectal cancer recently removed from her body. Anna danced to heal. She danced for peace—her peace and the world’s. "Movement has the capacity to take us to the home of the soul...the world within,” Anna said with passion to a room full of movers whirling past her, past the studio's chalk-white walls, and into a spiraling circle in the middle of the space.
Shouting above the pounding rhythm of live conga drums, she proclaimed, “Movement reaches our deepest nature...Dance creatively expresses it. Through dance, we gain new insights into the mystery of our lives,” I was sweating and hungry. We had been in a ritual space, dancing and going through Gestalt therapy-type journeys all day. “When brought forth from the inside...forged by the desire to create personal change, dance has the profound power to heal the body...psyche, and soul." This Jewish Earth Mother and shamanic socialist was healing us all just from her warmth, natural wisdom, and contagious curiosity. But what Anna gave us above all else was permission to be authentic, no matter who we were; she loved us. She loved humanity. Her capacity for empathy and acceptance inspired me.
“A body is living art. Your movement through time and space is art. A painter has brushes; you have your fantastic, pulsating body,” she said as we outlined each other’s bodies on white butcher paper with crayons. We then filled in this one-dimensional paper-self with colors, text, or personal symbols like tattoos. When she rang a bell for us to stop, we shared the stories about what we thought we had created and why. Anna always noticed what we had omitted, didn’t talk about, suppressed, or avoided, and then kindly encouraged us to dance with that.
My life-size drawing had sharply defined muscles, great abs, and floor-length wings—a mash-up of Adonis and Icarus with an empty circle for its face. When my turn came to present, I spoke in front of the drawing taped to the wall behind me as the others sprawled at my feet on the floor.
“It’s beautiful, like you,” Anna smiled. “It has a manly mystical quality...but I’m curious why this Herculean figure has no genitals.” The room became soundless. The dancers held their breath with me.
“Maybe...because I feel...androgynous,” I mumbled.
“Ok. I get that. And why else? The rest of the body is so sharply defined.”
My body stiffened. I stood motionless. I stood outside my body, outside of the room, outside of time. I wanted to be anywhere but here, but my defenses had weakened in all the earlier processes. I was transparent, despite fear, or maybe because of it. My eyes turned glassy blue.
“Maybe...be...because my...Dad,” tears started forming as Anna approached and reached for my hand.”‘My Dad would...would grab me there…”
“How old were you?”
“I was 8 or 9... He grabbed...in front of my Mom.” Tears were streaming down the other blurry faces as some sighed for me. Turning angry, I gained confidence; my voice became more assertive. “She couldn’t do anything to stop him. He...shamed me... in front of her. I could feel the rage...and the disgust in his hands, see the hatred in his eyes... I felt his pain...He blamed Mom...for me...being me.”
Anna took a deep breath with me, witnessing my melting face with her heart. She let go of my hand, walked over to the studliest guy in our group, and brought him over.
“Julian, can you be here for David? Can you dance with him with all you are feeling, with all of his feelings?”
“Absolutely,” he said, standing face to face with me, then scooping me up in his arms; he carried my limp, crying body the way Mary held the dead Christ. His strength and conviction were soothing, assuring me while allowing the others to dance out their traumas. One by one, they joined us, placing their hands on my body. The dance of two turned into a tribal ritual, a healing wave of 20. We circled the studio like a murmuration; drums pounded a heartbeat rhythm as primal screams exploded upwards towards the vaulted ceiling— towards heaven.
When the cathartic ritual came to its natural close, we returned to our renderings. I added my beautiful man bits, surrounding them with cherubs, dragons, lightning bolts, and rainbows until they were the most pronounced part of the image. This healing would be the first of many yet to come, leading me in time to empowerment and forgiveness. But I knew Anna had healed herself through creative movement and trusted I could, too.
The postmodern dancer, who referred to herself as “the breaker of rules,” lived to be 100.
Forty-five years later, visiting San Francisco, I dropped in on a yoga class on Divisadero Street. I didn’t realize the studio was in the former San Francisco Dancers Workshop until I lay on its wood floor. My body felt like it did when I had put on my old familiar sweatpants and comfortable sweatshirt. It knew these floors. My nervous system recognized these flattened trees that housed my liquid DNA, the sweat and tears, the hopes and fears of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality.
Looking up at the white vaulted ceiling, I imagined staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with its parting clouds and glimpse of heaven. Only now, I knew I was that muscular God reaching out to a strapping Adam—giving him life. That I am Adam creating God.