CfA's Op Ed
High School Eurythmy
by Laura Radefeld
What are the goals of eurythmy in a Waldorf High School curriculum? Why is it important and how are its benefits different from those derived from other forms of movement, such as yoga, folk dance, or gymnastics?
Eurythmy is a healing art, first and foremost, and more of a performing art as students progress through the high school, but always the gesture of eurythmy as an art is to heal, to balance, and to make whole. The intention is always to provide healthy movement that will support the growing and developing child, helping the child to build an inner architecture, step by step. But the questions remain: what and why?
Sixth graders already have a wealth of experience under their belts from knitting kittens and baby buntings to dressing as a god in a dramatic rendering of Norse mythology, to spoon carving out of hardwood. They have passed through what we call the “golden age of childhood”—that magical fifth grade year of balance and joy embodied most vividly by the Greek athlete: beautifully proportioned, interested in everything, and able to engage with any and everything with ease.
As they leave the golden age of childhood, children fall into gravity, the realities of their human form, and enter the challenging, sometimes disorienting time of puberty as they head toward adulthood. If they attended a Waldorf early childhood program they will have been nurtured and educated in spaces set up to stimulate doing: to imagine, build, create, collaborate, and play. In the early grades, the class teacher and the other teachers lead them, through the arts and their imaginations, into skillful participation.
One goal of Waldorf Education from early childhood through high school is to create the spaces for children to develop out of themselves the ability to move—to self-initiate movement. In early childhood, we design programs and spaces where a child’s self-initiated movement capacities are nurtured, encouraged, and developed. Simple, natural materials stimulate children to build worlds born out of their imagination. In grades one through eight, we nurture the child’s capacity for self-initiated movement in relationship to an authority. The children learn to love their teachers and are led to develop themselves and integrate new capacities in a multitude of ways under the loving care and guidance of these teachers.
In high school, students are supported to develop capacities of self-initiated movement in thought—i.e., following in thought the great thinkers of our time, and their teachers, honing their own capacities to perceive and to shape their own thoughts. The youngest children’s capacity to build and create things in their environment becomes the capacity to internalize the vivid stories of the grade school—the stories of the highest ideal and capacities of humanity—into capacities that become the tools for sound moral judgment, higher cognition, and the will to act on the impulses born of sound judgment and insight. This developmental path is one of movement, but also of learning to still inner movement in order to ponder, reflect, and give birth to new ideas.
And so the question of how eurythmy supports the high school student arises from the recognition that all of Waldorf pedagogy is based in movement. In a verse written for the dedication of a new building at the first Waldorf school, Rudolf Steiner directs the teachers to
…bring to young human beings
Bodily strength for work,
Inwardness of soul,
And clarity of spirit.
This concise statement of the aims of Waldorf education also captures the task of eurythmy in the curriculum. Healthy activities throughout the day––from early childhood through high school––address the aim of bodily strength for work: having a job every day, working in the garden, creating practical objects in handwork, chopping vegetables, baking bread, hiking, engaging in sports, practicing eurythmy, and so on.
In eurythmy, the primary purpose is not to develop physical strength so much as the strength needed to master one’s own movement with skillful dexterity and clarity and strength. Through rhythm and repetition, children learn to become aware of their own gestures: to make them stronger, clearer, and to imbue them with meaning. The aspect of movement artistry is essential to the healing aspect of this art form; to imbue one’s movement with the subtle qualities of color and timbre leads students to modulate moods in their own soul, to externalize this process in gesture and choreography, and to make an objective relationship to this intimate soul activity. Then the next step is to make this a choral activity as intense as the skilled cooperation of a sports team, with an extra element of heightened artistic judgment.
Inwardness of soul is developed throughout the curriculum in balancing movement and quietness—the ability to move from one thing to another masterfully, and then to quiet oneself, to listen, to take action, to reflect, to recall, to integrate new ideas. In eurythmy, students are led through developmental skill progressions that ask them to move dynamically, and then, out of themselves, to quiet themselves, to come to a point of balance, and to hold themselves quietly within that space. Picture someone skilled on a balance beam, and then imagine this skill as an inner capacity––to be able to move within yourself like a gymnast in perfect balance, while maintaining a strong center of stillness.
The aim of “clarity of spirit” is also developed throughout the curriculum in the stories that take students through the development of great cultures, great individualities in history, the highest ideals of humanity, and how ideals are made manifest in practical life. This is the work of the upper elementary school faculty and the high school faculty: to inspire students out of the highest ideals and accomplishments of humankind, enabling students to feel a connection to these developments, and to experience that the work can and must go on––through them. Eurythmy uses the same curricular content to allow students to digest deeply the images of each developmental age.
And so, as students navigate the challenges of this phase of their schooling, what does eurythmy specifically address? Developmentally, children are ready for big challenges: movement that demands skill, presence of mind, and dexterity. They need movement that warms the muscles and leads them to experience their own mobility and strength, that overcomes the heaviness of their bodily experience, and helps them find these qualities in objective movement patterns, such as in the forms of geometry. After all this is the time for expressing the beauty of movement in objective angles and clear forms. Dramatic soulful gestures that express romantic music, which come later, are built upon a strong foundation of geometric movement: clear, objective, and filled with thought.
One exercise, developed by Rudolf Steiner specifically for sixth grade eurythmy (and beyond), is called the “diamond transformation.” Students move in geometric patterns that are crystalline in one moment, then dissolve into fluid movement, then reappear in a new constellation in a different location. Students move at their own pace (there are four different tempos along three different paths), and everyone is bound by the objectivity of the accompanying music and its phrase lengths. It is hard to describe in this context, but imagine ice forming, melting, and reforming.
Imagine also the beautiful drawings of the sixth grade “divisions of the circle,” featured in Waldorf calendars or greeting cards, and now picture one of these beautiful forms in space and in movement. Eurythmy for this age is brought to clear expression by creating objective geometric forms in movement with others. How do I move as a part of a whole, strongly and dynamically, and also make my dynamic self align with fifteen other dynamic selves?
And then, what is added in high school? This is a chance to use the foundational basics of eurythmy for artistic expression, for digesting and deepening relationships to curriculum content in other subject areas. There are beautiful silent eurythmy forms––no speaking or music necessary––given by Rudolf Steiner as a lesson deeply revealing one’s own inner nature and spiritual being. These are lessons that embrace the Universal Human Being, the inner nature of the human being (for instances, TIAOAIT, Question of Destiny, and others). To work on passages from Parsifal or Dante’s Inferno in eurythmy is to live intimately and dynamically into formative thoughts from the curriculum. A teenager, who may not be the strongest academic student in the reading of the Odyssey, or other texts, may render it exquisitely in eurythmy, and thereby grasp the meaningful content. Students should have this portal for shaping their soul!
The music eurythmy curriculum explores the relationship of the soul-spirit aspect of developing adolescents to their physical/etheric body. To see high schoolers perform anything, but especially eurythmy, is to lift a veil and behold where each individual is on a journey to discovery of the true Self, and teachers of all disciplines can learn tremendously by carefully observing students in a performance of this nature.
Most importantly, eurythmy was developed by Rudolf Steiner for this time and its modern challenges. Eurythmy directly addresses issues of disengagement from the physical body due to overexposure to media, or the impact of fear on the whole of a student’s gestalt, or the lack of movement overall in modern culture. Rudolf Steiner stated that eurythmy was developed because there are spiritual realities that simply cannot be experienced in words.
In order to become true educators, we must be able to see the truly aesthetic element in the work, to bring an artistic quality into our tasks . . . if we bring this aesthetic element, then we begin to come closer to what the child wills out of its own nature.
––– Rudolf Steiner, A Modern Art of Education
Lastly, by demanding that students create harmonious beauty in their movement together—an objective quality demanded by the forms of geometry itself—we help them to regain a quality that is gifted to them in childhood and which needs to be rebuilt as it slips away in puberty and throughout life. By means of our own inner resources, inner movement, we regain balance and order, created through our own efforts, and through shared efforts with our classmates. We learn to appreciate the beauty in all of life.
The language of movement and form is the language of the spirit, or that in us which wills to connect with the world, make it better, more beautiful, more just, simply more. In eurythmy, we begin simply and without drama to indicate how individuals need to stand and move in relationship to the great tasks and ideas that they will set for themselves––how inner balance and stillness is perhaps the most potent human force, and how we each have to struggle in ourselves to develop it. Equally important, we learn that we can help each other in this endeavor, and experience how much we need one another to move ahead.
Join Laura Radefeld for her session at the Fall 2022 online seminar Starlight Rays in Darkened Times: Seminars on Contemporary Topics for Waldorf High School Teachers. Click here for more information.