ODE TO ANNA HALPRIN
The cancer diagnosis occurred on December 29th, 2020. A couple of days later I pulled a book off my shelf titled: Returning to Health with Dance, Movement and Imagery written by Anna Halprin. It’s a book I acquired during graduate school, when I was researching and practicing somatic methods for my own healing and choreography. I never really dove into the book, but Anna has been a major source of influence for me as an aging dance artist. She is a legend in the dance world, a trailblazer, known for challenging the definition of what it means to be a “dancer”. She was interested in the whole human being and believed dance was for anyone. Anna’s approach was holistic and includes psychology, somatics, and the investigation of one’s own life process as part of the dance agenda.
For those that are unfamiliar with the term somatics, it is derived from the Greek word soma and means “living, bodily aware person” and was coined by Thomas Hanna, a philosopher in the 1970’s.
How many of us can say that this is true for us? Are we living with bodily awareness and honoring what it has to offer?
It’s worth mentioning that I started this blog post many weeks ago, maybe even a couple of months ago. I haven’t posted it because I keep feeling like I don’t want to focus on cancer and when I write I can’t discern if I’m dwelling or rising above it. Treatment sucks in every way and I have no desire to deepen my experience with it, nor do I want to waste much needed energy recalling or reliving it. I also wonder if my writing will make sense to anyone. But now I feel compelled to share this post about Anna (slightly edited) because Anna passed away 10 days ago on May 24, 2021 at 100 years of age. I was originally writing in the present tense and now I must write about her in the past tense.
I try not to think about this in relation to myself, even though we will all be past tense someday. I do not want to be past tense because of cancer.
So I’m sharing as a way to honor Anna and to get myself back on the wagon of blogging. What a remarkable thing it is to live to 100! And even more astounding as a cancer survivor. It truly is a testimony for art as a healing modality.
If I had to distill Anna’s practice into one word, it would be: INTUITION.
Back to the book: I knew the book was about sharing artistic methods (movement, writing, drawing) with cancer patients and that she, herself had had cancer. I turned to the first page of the preface and read:
“While I was exploring this process, I drew an image that I was unable to dance. This
was a signal to me. Why couldn’t I dance it? What was blocking me? I had drawn a
round ball in my pelvic area and I intellectualized that it was a symbol of an embryo,
pointing the way to new beginnings. But some part of me was sure that this approach to
my drawing was nonsense because I wouldn’t put the drawing into motion. That night,
when my mind was quiet, I had intimations that the image I had drawn had something
to tell me, and that I was in denial.
The next day I made an appointment with my doctor. I asked him to examine me
precisely where I had drawn this round ball. He diagnosed rectal cancer (9).”
Anna had rectal cancer, the cancer I am dealing with. My jaw dropped as I read this and I went on to find out that she had an operation and a recurrence three years later. I was in a state of shock and hope, I knew that opening this book to page 9 was no accident. That her intuition (which the books tells about) and my own are in fact a form of somatic badassness! Not to say that all my fear left in that moment…but my fear could be taken on and Anna and her methods offered a roadmap for those of us interested in this kind of work.
I BELIEVE the body knows…I have two pieces of evidence that my body knew I had a tumor. It might sound crazy, but I was being shown by my body in visual images and metaphor. My intuition was trying to reach me but I wasn’t able to receive the information at that time.
Evidence of intuition #1: a movement improvisation that explored dancing with a rock between my legs that would eventually become my thesis work. This informal exploration was titled: Rock Study and done in July of 2018 at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA.
There was no premeditation to this study. I was walking into the dance studio to work and saw this rock under a bench in the entry way. I picked it up and it became the impetus for a 25-minute piece with 6 other dancers that would be performed at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Marcos, TX. I find it astounding that my first inclination in working with this rock was to put it between my legs. This part of the exploration remained in the final presentation and though there may be doubters, I know it was my body communicating with me.
Evidence of intuition #2: A drawing I made during a Body Mapping workshop with Annabella Lenzu on April 18, 2020.
In looking at this drawing I can easily see how I was unconsciously aware of a tumor. There is a W (that is part of the word “down”) drawn near the rear end of my body that also seems to serve as a marker for my sphincter. The large black circle is very near, much like the reality of the tumor I am targeting now. Also, when I had an MRI done to assess the tumor more and get a diagnosis for the stage of the cancer, I was told that there were two lymph nodes lit up. I think the two black ovals connected to the large black circle are these lymph nodes. Since then, I have been told that there are also other lymph nodes very slightly lit up on the imaging, but it is entirely possible that this picture was accurate at the time I drew it in April of 2020. I also find it interesting that I have a port in the left side of my chest that was originally supposed to be put in my right side. The surgeon had trouble getting it in on the right because my veins are small. And here in the drawing it is the left side that has yellow fluid going down to the ovals and circle. One of the chemo drugs I take, the one that I wear for 46 hours on a pump attached through my port, is yellow. The fluid tunneling down to what I believe represent a tumor and two lymph nodes is yellow. I am also about to start oral chemo and there is some association around the mouth and ingestion here too. I have no idea what the orange fish like figure represents. Thoughts welcome about this!
The most recent complication that I have faced is a blood clot on the catheter of my port. I wonder if the blue drop has anything to do with this? I am guessing that the black shading in the heart and head area has to do with pain, sadness and grief. Old stuff, stuff that needs to be discharged energetically. I do feel that cancer is helping me discharge things that I have not been able to work through before now, because cancer changes you and the changes are swift. (I may approach this topic in Blog 4.)
As I navigate this year of treatment, this thing that feels like it has taken over my life, I choose to reckon with the mental and psychological components of how I ended up here -- because I want to be well. I want to live. This is where the power lies, in looking at and dealing with the WHOLE mess to get to WHOLE-ness. Western medicine is amazing but it does not employ the soma or somatic methods. I am grateful for it but I am also eternally in favor of trailblazers like Anna Halprin. If she can live to be 100 years old as a cancer survivor, then so can I.
“Cancer is like enlightenment at gunpoint”.
“Before I had cancer, I lived my life in service of dance, and after I had cancer, I danced in the service of life”.
These are Anna’s words and cut straight to my heart, and I feel her words pumping there.
For more on Anna Halprin see this link: https://experiments.californiahistoricalsociety.org/anna-halprin-dance-as-a-healing-art/
Link to the book Returning to Health with Dance, Movement and Imagery: https://books.google.com/books/about/Returning_to_Health.html?id=YLcLAAAACAAJ&source=kp_book_description