The Revolutionary Resonances of Dancing Bear

Jon Leland
Mar 26 · 4 min read

The first public use of my new name was broadcast loud and clear from the rock festival’s booming PA.

It was 1970 and we, the revolutionary tribes, were gathered in a pristine natural amphitheater in the countryside outside Seattle. However, representation was limited by the authorities. This weekend fundraiser rock festival for a startup political party, The Buffalo Party (pun intended), had been declared illegal, and police roadblocks were put in place on Friday.

“The Buffalo Party National Convention (& Pig Roast),” 1970. Photo via Eatonville to Rainier by Diane Mettler, Creative Commons License.

I was part of the media collective of an aligned activist tribe called the Seattle Liberation Front or the SLF. The previous weekend, our rag tag media group held what today might be called an “off-site” retreat. Unlike today’s corporate off-sites, this one included psychedelic drugs; and we camped in tents. During this meeting, the self-proclaimed poet laureate of the SLF, Tom Byers, declared to a circle of agreeable nodding heads, “Jon, you are a Dancing Bear.” He repeated, “Jon, you are a Dancing Bear.”

I don’t remember if there were high-fives all around, but it felt that way.

Dancing Bear, a.k.a. Jon Leland (that’s me) in San Francisco, around 1972. Photo by Lisa Anne Lloyd.

Apparently, the poet’s declaration resonated. When it turned out that the local DJ who had been booked to emcee this festival did not get through the police roadblocks, my friends from the SLF decided that it was time to invoke my new name. As fate would have it, I was already present at the festival site, stationed front and center: my VW bus parked in the center of the natural amphitheater, the sliding side door facing the stage. And, I was also qualified via my experiences as a concert emcee during my DJ days at Cornell, the seeding ground of the SLF.

Thus, the call came via the booming concert public address system, and again “Dancing Bear” received the reinforcement of repetition: “Will Dancing Bear please come on stage… Dancing Bear, please come on stage.”

Needless to say, I answered the call. As I remember it, there was little hesitation.

As I look back now, I realize that my new name had resonances beyond anything I could have imagined. What is clear is that I felt connected to my new name to such a degree that I chose to go by “Dancing Bear” for at least six years.

I used “Dancing Bear” as my byline when I wrote music and film reviews for underground newspapers like the Quicksilver Times and the Berkeley Barb, on various radio programs, and when I hosted an alternative TV series in 1974–75 called “Went Like It Came.”

On the set of the broadcast special edition of Went Like It Came, February, 1975: Dancing Bear with Arlo Guthrie and Rona “Begonia” Elliot. Photo by my sister, Ginny Winn.

I obviously enjoyed this novel way to identify myself. I also suppose I projected it as a playful nod and vague attempt to honor our land’s Native American custodians. Today, some might call that “cultural appropriation,” but no one was thinking like that back then. Mostly, I think it was just another way, like my long hair, for me to differentiate myself, and metaphorically speaking, for me to give “The Man” the finger.

Fast forward over 40 years!

In 2013, another kind of identity change led me to ask for a divorce after an 18-year marriage. As I awoke to honoring my needs in a refreshed way, one of the most profound reflections of this process came from a dear friend and cosmic sister who was part of another 70s tribe of mine that gathered at a Northern California ranch called Mountain Wolf.

After all these years, this sister, Erika, is now living in Paris and still calls me, “Bear.” Around that time, at my suggestion, a newer friend, Suzanne, met Erika while visiting Paris. When Suzanne told Erika that I was getting a divorce, Erika affirmed the direction of my latest life-changing event by saying, “When I saw him (in that old relationship), I felt that the Bear was in chains.”

Very quickly, Erika’s “chains” metaphor helped to lift some of my insecurities about moving forward (if you’ve been divorced, you know what I mean). My response was my own kind of affirmation. I felt lighter by declaring, “The Bear is unchained!”

I felt grateful for this increased clarity that the divorce was the right thing for me at that point in my life, and this invocation of my Bear-like playful spirit became a reminder of who I really am.

Remembering this experience sparks my devotion to my own spirit, and charges my desire to amplify my awareness of my always-present, authentically enthusiastic, bear-like being. At the same time, I am inspired to do my best to resist my often habitual, self-imposed pressures to be something else and/or to take myself more seriously.

I like being “the Bear,” and I cherish the love of old friends who still call me that. It makes me more attractive, most importantly, to myself.

Today, I feel a growing willingness to live life fully and, yes, even playfully.

It’s fun the way this name still resonates. It turns out—sometimes to my own surprise—that Dancing Bear really is me.

Thanks to Rachel Keane.

Jon Leland

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Online Marketing Mentor & Strategist, Video producer/director, Educational Warrior (author/speaker), meditator/yogi, golfer, grandpa, very decent human.