The Origins of Dance & Eurythmy

Trained eurythmist and psychotherapist Thomas Poplawski on the origins of Eurythmy and how Rudolf Steiner initiated a new art of movement, which can be characterised as speech and music made visible.


Watkins Mind Body Spirit, Issue 44.

This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, Issue 44.

Dance is an independent rhythm, a movement whose centre is outside of the human being. The rhythm of dance takes us to a primeval age of the world. The dances of our time are a degeneration of the original temple dances that embodied knowledge of the most profound secrets of the world.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith these words Rudolf Steiner expressed the essence of the renewal he was to bring to the art of dance with the founding of the movement art of eurythmy. Still little known in English-speaking countries, this art of ‘ensouled movement’ has grown since its founding earlier in the century to include some thousands of eurythmists around the world. Eurythmy is found gracing the stages of grand theatres, most impressively by the large stage groups in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, and Dornach (Switzerland), but also in another form in schools, clinics, and in communities for those with special needs. For what this art has achieved is a kind of ‘unified field theory’ of artistic movement, providing a nucleus which inspires and enkindles a performing art, an educational approach for children and adults and, finally, a movement therapy used as an adjunct to medical and psychological treatment.

Remarkably, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was not himself a dancer but rather an inspired philosopher, writer, playwright, scientist, and veritable Renaissance man who founded the movement called Anthroposophy or Spiritual Science in Germany in 1913. Steiner believed that with the ending of what in Sanskrit was called the Kali Yuga or Dark Age in the late nineteenth century, the time had come to reopen the ancient Mysteries to humanity, to reveal what had for millennia remained the secret property of occult societies. This revelation of the Mysteries had already begun with the discovery and translation of sacred texts from the East and their subsequent popularization, and with the spiritually channelled revelations of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society.

This trend has continued throughout the century up to the present time when a person can walk into any bookstore and find shelves of books expounding occult teachings and practices. Steiner’s interest, however, was not merely in discovering the nature of the old Mysteries or attempting to reconstruct them. Rather, he strove to reinfuse spirituality and deeper meaning into a western culture that had turned too one-sidedly toward a materialistic worldview by reviving the Mysteries in a manner that would be appropriate for the individual of today. He set about doing so through inspiring contributions, often of revolutionary calibre, in philosophy, the arts, and the sciences. The renewal of the art of dance was one to which he attributed especial importance not only for the arts but in the rejuvenation of the spiritual-cultural life in general. In order to understand what Steiner was attempting in his creation of eurythmy, it would be important to take an historical survey of dance especially in regard to its origin in the Mysteries, and to the thread which was apparently lost, but which Steiner hoped to pick up in his reinvention of the art.


Dance and the Mysteries

Dance is regarded as the oldest of the arts, requiring only the body as its instrument. Like all of the arts, it was considered to be a gift to the human race from the spiritual worlds, from the realm of the hierarchies of angels or the gods. In the Greek tradition, Terpsichore, who inspired dance, was one of the nine Muses, all daughters of Zeus, leader of the Titans, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory. Though all the Muses shared in song and dance, it was Terpsichore who brought this gift to Earth.

Just as children learn to gesture and to walk before speaking, so is it believed that communication began in earliest times through movement. Sympathy with another was expressed through imitating and mirroring the movement of the other, bringing the two into an understanding harmony and concordance. Then one or the other would lead the ‘conversation’ in a particular direction with the other following, initiating a dance which went back and forth between the two. Inspiring this interchange was the presence and movement of the natural world and the cosmos above, as well as the inhabitants of these realms. Communication in ancient times was not so obsessed with the mere practicalities of asking someone to ‘pass the butter’! In the few writings which have come down to us from earliest times the impression of the early human being is not one of a lumbering, unshaven Neanderthal, but rather of a not entirely physical creature reminiscent of some Tolkienian forest folk, living in harmony and with resonance and extreme sensitivity to others and the natural world around.

Steiner (in his book Cosmic Memory) described all human beings of these times as clairvoyant, meaning that their thinking and deeds were influenced and inspired by spiritual forces and beings on a quite conscious level, though this consciousness was rather dreamlike and ethereal by modern standards. The earth was kept in harmony through the guidance given humanity by these gods, through the communities mirroring in movement impulses received from on high, then creatively elaborating this impulse through the dances they performed with each other. This life in Paradise, however, eventually came to an end. The Biblical story of Adam and Eve relates the expulsion from the Eden of this shared life with the spiritual realm. After this time, the human connection to the spiritual worlds began to dim. This loss of spiritual guidance could be seen as a necessary step in human development. If every action of an individual were ordained by spiritual beings, the ‘pressure’ of divine presence would never have allowed the development of free will and the freedom of choice which we value so highly.

This loss, however, left the ancients in fear and confusion. Without a direct experience of the will of the gods, how were they to decide on rules of social conduct or morality, how were they to know when to plant, to harvest, to remain in synchrony with the divinely inspired rhythms of nature, of Gaia?

Certain individuals still maintained an openness to the inspiration of the spiritual world. The Old Testament is filled with stories of sages and prophets visited by angels or even, as with Moses on Mount Sinai, by a higher level of spiritual being, Yahweh or Jehovah. Many of these individuals had undergone training in special schools called Mystery centres, the mysteries implied being those of maintaining a connection between everyday consciousness and the more spiritual one. In these centres, specialised instruction was given and successful candidates were administered rites of initiation which reopened spiritual sight and hearing. In this fashion, for some time the link with the old gods was preserved. In time, however, even the Mysteries began to decay. As the consciousness of humanity dimmed, it became the role of the Mysteries and a clairvoyant priesthood to direct what now became rituals. As such, this was also the time when the arts (and artists) came into being. Prior to this time when everyone enjoyed the clairvoyant capacity to receive impressions from spiritual realms, the communicating and inspiring function of the arts was unnecessary. With the coming of the Dark Age, however, the arts sprung forth from the Mystery temples as a means of continuing to transmit the sacred will, especially through rites and rituals. In ancient Greece this took the form of the dithyramb or circular chorus (chorus being Greek for ‘dance’) celebrated in the orchestra (Greek for ‘dancing place’). Originally, the entire village gathered around a central altar, singing and dancing in rhythm, moving in one direction for the verse and in the opposite direction for the repeated refrain.

In time, as the Mysteries became decadent and lost their efficacy around the ninth to tenth centuries bc, these rituals were often limited to a group of the men, while the rest of the village watched, creating an audience for the first time. In Athens the dithyramb was celebrated by fifty men or boys with a standardised form to the ceremony. After the ritual failed on a number of occasions to bring abundant crops, it began to lose its magical appeal. However, this creation of the audience, the switching from the orchestra to the theatre (from theatron or ‘seeing place’), led to the form that drama and the performing arts utilize even today.

As the spiritual senses faded, human beings were pushed into a kind of aloneness, isolated within themselves and into acting more as individuals rather than through being commonly inspired as a group. Dance followed this pattern, for the first time taking on the role of a profession and, in western culture, predominantly one of men. Just as verbal teachings were preserved in the Mystery temples along with techniques for accessing the words of the gods, so too were the dances the preserve of the temple. As such, the formerly spontaneous activity that was imminently inspired now became frozen into precisely memorised movements for which the temple dancer was trained. A training in technique and aesthetic sensitivity developed which restricted experimentation or an individual’s personal inspiration by the Muse. The importance of adhering to the prescribed form is underlined in one example: in the New Hebrides, any dancer making a mistake was assaulted, wounded, or even killed by bowmen posted to watch for any inaccuracy in the rituals.

Another example, in this case from music, comes from the ancient Chinese text, Shu King. There is described how the Emperor Shin traveled throughout the country testing the exact pitch of the music played in the various districts, checking that the music was in perfect correspondence with the five tones of their pentatonic scale. It was taught that if the districts began to tune their instruments differently, the peoples themselves would begin to differ and to fight among themselves. Such strictures placed on the performance of the arts thus arose from the fear that any deviations from the formula once revealed by those who could experience the spirit would cause the gods to withdraw their blessing and beneficence from that tribe or people. Interestingly, remnants of these old Mystery dances can still be found, from Hopi reservations to temples in Bali to the movements which the Caucasian Greek sage, G.I. Gurdjieff, brought back from his ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ in Central Asia.


Another Direction

Late in 1912, Rudolf Steiner was approached by a woman named Clara Smits who had been following his lectures for a number of years with interest and now sought his counsel. Her husband had died unexpectedly only two weeks before, and she was concerned about finding a career for her eighteen-year-old daughter, Lori. One of her daughter’s interests was dance and gymnastics. Steiner suggested that something could be done along those lines on an anthroposophical basis and that he would be willing to instruct her.

This instruction formed the beginnings of the new art of eurythmy (from the Greek for ‘beautiful’ or ‘harmonious movement’): another stream of movement which sought to reconnect with the original impulse of Terpsichore; to continue the revolution begun by the pioneers of the twentieth century dance (without necessarily being their direct descendant); to restore dance to its original role as a mouthpiece for the spiritual, revealing the workings of higher laws while manifesting those laws on earth through the art form. With the end of the Dark Age in the late 1800s, Steiner foresaw a resurgence in spirituality in the West as many individuals would begin to have clairvoyant experiences, visions of angels and other non-material beings, visions of the afterlife, and so on. Humanity would require help and guidance in crossing over this mysterious threshold to spiritual consciousness, as the almost universal acceptance of the materialistic worldview meant that those having spiritual experiences were left confused, upset, and fearful that they were going mad. Steiner feared that dance would follow the materialistic streams of the twentieth century which concern themselves with only a limited aspect of reality and human experience. He felt that a new art of movement was needed that would take advantage of this historic opportunity by reintroducing the light of the ancient Mysteries. He did not even like to consider eurythmy as dance, but rather as an entirely new art form. The role of this new art was to guide humanity in crossing this threshold through developing an expanded view of reality, going beyond the purely materialistic.

About the author: Thomas Poplawski is a trained eurythmist and psychotherapist. He has published numerous articles on education, psychology and the arts. He lives in Massachusetts, USA.


Thomas Poplawski
Eurythmy: A Short Introduction to the Art of Movement
Floris Books
£7.99, Available from Watkins Books







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