Eurythmy – from Me to We

Jürgen Frank

In response to the question, “You go to a Waldorf school, can you dance your name?”, the  class 13 pupil answered: “Yes, of course we can dance our name – but above all we can express ourselves through movement. But that is not the only thing we have learnt in thirteen years of eurythmy lessons. We have also learnt to give expression through movement to our longings, our humour, our sadness and what we feel in music and language.” There is actually no better way of putting what eurythmy is.

There was recently an advertising slogan which neatly sums up the zeitgeist: “Bottom line – it’s ME that counts”. As an expression of a social standpoint, it is the precise opposite of what we as eurythmy and Waldorf teachers want to instil in the pupils. But social behaviour cannot be taught intellectually, given marks and framed in a qualification; it requires a pathway along which the individual person can practise it as part of the lesson.

One of Rudolf Steiner’s key initiatives aimed to improve the social co-existence between people and thus nations. We find this impulse set out in many public lectures, writings and petitions. At the same time that Steiner was working on these social initiatives, he was also developing the art of eurythmy. It opens up a training field in which people can learn to co-exist socially within the context of an art form.

The foundation of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1919 set an impulse of renewal in education. It was not only intended to increase the opportunities of the workers’ children but also to enable people to act in a socially competent way in society in their later life. Hence it was logical to include eurythmy as a “social art” firmly in the curriculum of the Waldorf school.

Many of the basic impulses of educational eurythmy have not changed significantly:

  • The healthy development of movement
  • Strengthening and developing the will
  • Support for the healthy development of the feelings
  • Aesthetic education

Do we actually need it?

Steiner’s many references to the importance of the healthy development of movement for training the thinking are affirmed by brain research today. Movement activates intellectual abilities. Movement also sets the neural network in motion. Movement develops the thinking. The urban environment, media consumption and the rise of indoor activities are changing the world in which children live and move and mean that the things which failed to happen in early childhood have to be made up in kindergarten and school. I know from my own experience as an admissions teacher that at least two thirds of the children being presented have clear developmental deficits in their movement just before starting school.

Teaching in lower school is based on imitation and  builds strongly on the ability to imitate movement (including movement in the thinking) and then is faced with children who first have to practice such imitation. Many children have an impaired relationship of trust with the surrounding world. Eurythmy, particularly in the kindergarten and lower school years, tries to heal this impaired relationship of trust. Only someone who has trust can imitate. Eurythmy lessons work through a virtually unlimited Waldorf range of age-appropriate, meaningful movement exercises which not only relate to the physical aspect but take account of the child’s soul life and the spiritual and emotional developmental stage of the children.

The middle school period, characterised by the education of the will, represents a wonderful challenge for every teacher. Eurythmy, working out of the rhythmical element, offers numerous exercises which equally support the social aspect of community and individual talents. Pupils at this age have to have a sense and experience of themselves and smooth off some of their rough edges on those around them. The school leaving exams demand a great amount of work from the upper school pupils; for community and for hobbies. Learning an instrument, some sport and cultural interests may have to be given up because there is no longer enough time. The great stress can often lead to postural defects, eating disorders, concentration difficulties and increased susceptibility to illness.

Here eurythmy can help in many respects: regenerative exercises refresh the life forces, the great pleasure of the pupils in presentation and movement is nourished in the eurythmical study of texts and music, choreography and community building exercises lead out of isolation back into the community. The intensive study of art connects the pupils again with the ideals slumbering in them.

The feelings are what matters

In recent years it has become clear to me that alongside support for the development of movement, for strengthening the will, the development of “healthy feeling” represents a significant task of school eurythmy. Specifically in the realm of feeling, of permitting and showing feelings as well as their differentiation, eurythmy plays a major role. My trainer always referred to a keyboard of feelings slumbering in us whose keys we only use to a small extent. Targeted exercises can train us to perceive, show and use them to a greater extent.

But it is not only about recognising personal feelings but also about an understanding that feelings can offer us access to the world. Joy, pain and grief may be subjective experiences but they are also general human feelings which can be objectively represented. The representation in eurythmy of the great cultural creations, moving poetry or music, leads to the experience of objective feelings.

This can be a help for young people in crisis situations to find their own way.

“Could you dance that?” Rudolf Steiner asked the young painter Margarita Woloschin in 1908 after a lecture on the prologue of the Gospel of John, where it says: “In the beginning was the Word …” Her response was: “I think one could dance everything that one feels.” Whereupon he answered: “But the feeling is what is important today.”

It took me many years to understand Steiner’s answer. As a eurythmy teacher I resisted a eurythmy that was a “feeling art” since it works on all the soul forces: thinking, feeling and the will. But when I think about his answer today, I sense a deep truth in it. It seems to me that I live in a world in which the “healthy” human feelings are increasingly disconnected from thinking and action, and empathy with our fellow human beings is waning.

Eurythmy develops and cultivates emotional intelligence

Our traditional education systems have regard for cognitive intelligence above all. According to the findings of modern brain research, learning is successful if the feelings are involved. Learning means connecting with content through the feelings. Learning is not just storing information, even if this is how it is handled in many fields of education. There are only a few school forms like the Waldorf schools in which there is an enhanced cultivation of the emotional intelligence of the pupils. This may have been an important reason for Steiner to integrate eurythmy in the Waldorf school.

The work environment has meanwhile been largely digitalised and this will only become more so. Gunter Dueck, mathematician and former CTO at IBM, forecast a world of work in which there is only work in those fields for which computers are too stupid. What can’t the computer do? What skills does the world of work require? An answer is difficult to find; the rapidity of change makes any certainty in forecasting almost impossible. It is thus perhaps all the more important to reflect on an educational ideal which does not first and foremost have as its objective the utilisation of the acquired education in the work environment but the development of the personality and an orientation in the world which is anchored in our own ideals.

What do we need for our future and what do our children need? People who in the best sense of the word deal with their fellow human beings and their environment in a social way. People who have a perception of what personal relationships mean, who have a healthy relationship with the world. Social competence is not possible without empathy.

A large part of artistic eurythmy with pupils involves practising the skill to handle the boundaries of our own identity and the identity of others in a controlled and flexible way. Pupils experience the deeper content of a text or piece of music, gradually make it their own  in order finally to bring it to expression. This is, among other things, an exercise in empathy: I feel what the poet felt and thought, I am sensitive to what the composer’s sentiments were. Empathy is the condition for understanding the experiences of others, the gateway to a creative process.

Eurythmy offers itself as a medium for such a playful artistic way of dealing with the boundaries of our own identity and the identity of others; particularly when at a particular developmental stage the need arises to have experiences of a far-reaching or extreme kind which are hardly possible in our own everyday lives.

About the author: Jürgen Frank is a eurythmy teacher at the Hamburg-Bergstedt Rudolf Steiner School, lecturer at the Hoogeschool Leiden, NL, member of IPEU (Initiative for Educational Eurythmy), researcher and author in the field of eurythmy education.