Dancing letters can clear the head

By Matthias Jeuken, January 2012

“What’s eurythmy actually good for?” Waldorf pupils ask in eurythmy lessons. Or: “How can you explain what eurythmy is?” If we succeed in answering such questions in an age-appropriate and clear way, the conversation can strengthen the acceptance and motivation of pupils beyond simply understanding what eurythmy is, and it can thus support the intentions of eurythmy.

Teachers of all subjects are asked every so often what their subject is useful for. We can be pretty certain that this question will be asked in eurythmy as a school subject. Simply answering: “So that you can be good at eurythmy in later life,” is not a satisfactory response – and would also be wrong. The opposite is true: eurythmy supports the children and young people in their development in school. It helps to develop abilities and competences without being an end in itself. The eurythmy work undertaken by the pupils undergoes constant transformation and supports their individual and social developmental steps. This “transformative character” makes eurythmy difficult to understand in comparison to the other school subjects and obviously also difficult to explain. 

That, at least, is what emerges from the responses of pupils about eurythmy lessons which were published in Erziehungskunst (June 2005): “Eurythmy is known by everyone as the problem subject in Waldorf schools,” pupils say who do not know why eurythmy is taught. “That is because many teachers do not know how to explain to pupils what this subject is good for and for what they might use it in the future,” two class ten pupils write. Two pupils from class nine add: “There is always the question among us what the point of eurythmy is. Well, we were given answers we didn’t understand.”

There are presumably few teachers who will any longer reject any discussion of eurythmy and who refuse to talk to pupils about it and explain it. I consider the opinion often expressed in the past that “If the pupils want to speak about eurythmy it is a sign of bad teaching” to be wrong. If my lessons stimulate pupils to join in self-confidently and of their own accord, it is precisely a sign of quality if they also wish to reflect on and understand what they have experienced, how and why eurythmy works. But many statements from pupils suggest that teachers are afraid of such conversations or have difficulty in explaining eurythmy. Different ages require different answers. There is a widespread tendency today to want to explain everything to children at any age. That is not, of course, what is meant here.

The pupils in the lower classes mostly accept simple explanations. For example that we can move confidently on our skateboards through pedestrian zones or traffic if we can find our way through difficult eurythmy forms. At the onset of puberty, mostly in the sixth year of school, the quality of the questions from pupils changes. The ability, but also the urge, to engage with the world to a greater extent through thinking arises in them. Rudolf Steiner’s statement on this “turnaround” sounds as if it was made for eurythmy: “At about the age of twelve, maybe a bit earlier, the ability arises for the first time in the child to convert into pure thoughts what he or she previously wanted to experience imaginatively through music, rhythm and in regular patterns.”

It is thus justified from this age onwards to explain eurythmy to pupils conceptually. If that does not happen, there is a risk that pupils will inwardly turn away from the teacher. Steiner already warned the first Waldorf teachers against revealing any “latent weakness” to pupils at the age of puberty by not answering their questions. In her book on eurythmy lessons in middle school, Helga Daniel explains “that what they [the pupils] learn in eurythmy is connected with life, the here-and-now, our fellow human beings or the world!” She suggests that eurythmy teachers should regularly interlace their eurythmy work with short conversations to reflect with the pupils on “what is actually being practiced and learnt in the task at hand”. Helga Daniel gives some important advice for these situations: “Don’t let yourself be taken by surprise by these questions about eurythmy and pressurised into an immediate and, as a result, perhaps premature answer. On some occasions the question is asked to challenge the teacher or waste a bit of time during lessons. A proven response is to put the question to one side. The answer ‘Ask me again at the end of the lesson’ creates some space and often reveals the seriousness of the intent with which the question was put: if the question reflected a real concern, it will still be there at the end of the lesson and repeated.”

Pupils find answers themselves

Waldorf pupils themselves are frequently asked about eurythmy and justifiably want to know how they can explain what it is. That was the starting point of the project which Jürgen Frank described in Erziehungskunst (February 2011): he asked his upper school pupils to try and formulate for themselves in a few sentences how one might answer that question. His conclusion was that the pupils not only found impressive formulations but through their descriptions reflected his lessons back at him as their teacher. The more the pupils contribute to the conversation about eurythmy, the better. Their active involvement has a positive effect on understanding and illustrates where the pupils stand inwardly, what they think and feel. By way of introduction it can be useful to give the pupils their own question as a kind of homework. We can ask them to answer the question “What is eurythmy good for?” or “What is the effect of doing eurythmy?” themselves to the best of their ability. The pupils are also encouraged to ask other “experts”: what do their parents, their class teacher, know or what is their opinion? The planned conversation about eurythmy will only take place if the pupils have also really done their homework. As a rule, the pupils come to the lesson well prepared and curious, keen to tell about their conclusions or what they have found out. It is surprising how much pupils can find to say through their own effort.

Some examples:

  • Inner calm, relaxation, command of one’s body, self-confidence; it is intended to unite spirit and body; feeling for space; it is good for collaborating with others and to learn to express oneself. (Class 7.)
  • Body language; rhythmical training; I can concentrate better with eurythmy, it changes the strength of will. (Class 9.)
  • Dancing letters: forming words and thoughts; one becomes aware of things one has not paid attention to before. One somehow comes to rest, also unconsciously. Eurythmy can clear the head; it helps to find things of one’s own more easily. (Class 11.)

But the teacher, too, must contribute his or her part and explain to the pupils what he or she has prepared for them because they want to know from their teacher what he or she has to say to them – and also what his or her own attitude is to the subject. Short eurythmy exercises can introduce the conversation. The pupils mostly join in attentively and consciously on such occasions because they want to know what these movements are precisely about.

Eurythmy takes hold of the whole person

In the conversations it has shown itself to be effective to take various aspects of the differentiated human being into account. It is not unusual for Waldorf pupils to differentiate by physical, soul and spiritual aspects. This form of observation takes account of the human being and is better able to disclose the various levels at which eurythmy works. Some aspects of the effectiveness of eurythmy are summarised below.

Depending on how we talk with the pupils, various nuances can be highlighted. For example that eurythmy takes hold of the body, makes it skilful and develops it into an instrument. It further differentiates the perceptual ability of the senses, above all with regard to balance, vision and hearing. Then it has a harmonising, vitalising effect and helps us to find our own centre as well as to perceive others better. It trains the ability to orientate oneself and extends one’s own expressive possibilities. Eurythmy further combines soul aspects (sensations and feelings) with the body. It strengthens the ability to experience qualities of language and music, but also of movement and our fellow human beings. And, not least, it supports abilities which other lessons build on (geometry, German, arithmetic). Beyond that there are, of course, a large number of other qualities and competences which eurythmy communicates or can help to develop.

Connecting eurythmy with young people’s experience of the world

The age-appropriate conversation about eurythmy lessons contains the possibility of connecting eurythmy to the young person’s experience of the world. Coexistence with other people is an important subject, every pupil understands that. That eurythmy trains the ability to move in relation to others is also easy to understand. Generally speaking that is referred to as sociality or human solidarity. Depending on age, the importance of this subject can be addressed in quite different ways: by the example of coexistence in the class community, of road traffic, with regard to social groups or, indeed, states. In this way we can succeed in bringing together eurythmy, our own artistic practice, and our experience of the world: in eurythmy we practice human solidarity.

About the author: Matthias Jeuken is a eurythmy lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart


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