Gia van den Akker
‘It is a wonderful experience to turn into a roaring sea or the sound of a fading gale together with a class full of children. The sense of oneness that can come with eurhythmy, at some point feeling that you have turned into a poem or a piece of music, when everything comes together… To me, that is the essence of eurhythmy’, says Berpke van Oers (38).
An interview with Berpke van Oers
Berpke graduated from the Eurhythmy Academy in 2000. Since 2011, she combines teaching at a school with her work as a self-employed eurhythmy teacher. In Bagel&Beans, one of her favourite places to prepare her lessons, Berpke speaks enthusiastically and with beautiful diction about her reasons for studying eurhythmy, and how dancing and teaching eurhythmy affect her.
Berpke, when were you first introduced to eurhythmy? And what made you decide to pursue a career in eurhythmy?
‘I attended a Waldorf school until I was 18. Eurhythmy was part of the curriculum, as ordinary as PE or maths. I liked moving and I enjoyed the eurhythmy classes, as they allowed you to unite thinking and feeling by moving beautifully. As did the ballet classes, for that matter, that I had attended since I was five. I was your typical ballet girl, and I dreamed of becoming a classy and famous ballerina. My parents were involved in school and were interested in anthroposophy. School life and home life were perfectly matched, until I reached puberty and wanted something else. I wanted to see more of the world, and so I went to university to read history. However, after the first year, having spent so much time pouring over books, it all became too dry and theoretical for my liking. Studying was an individual effort and I missed social cohesion, a sense of togetherness between students. The most important argument for quitting was that I failed to see the social relevance of the programme. In retrospect, my switch from history to eurhythmy was an obvious step. In my final year at secondary school I had picked eurhythmy as one of my subjects, and as part of the final exam, I had participated in a eurhythmy project. I had made me realize what eurhythmy can do for you. I had a knack for translating music into eurhythmic movements. The fact that I have playing musical instruments from a young age probably helped as well: I play the violin and the piano. At the time, I even considered auditioning for the conservatory, but during the eurhythmy project I felt that this could be another way to realize my dream of becoming a performing musician. Another aspect that motivated me to start doing a BA in eurhythmy, is the fact that eurhythmy is based on the concept that man is made up of body, soul and spirit. I never regretted my switch for one minute! For the record: having attended a Waldorf school or having taken ballet or music lessons is not a requirement for taking a degree in eurhythmy. I know many people who found their way into eurhythmy without such a background.’
It took you several years before you started working as a self-employed eurhythmist. What did you do in the first years after graduation?
‘After my training, which I enjoyed very much, I spent some time at Dornach, an anthroposophic centre in Switzerland. I had a part as a solo eurhythmist in one of the so-called Mystery Plays - definitely an impressive experience. After that, I started my own eurhythmy group, JugendStil, together with two friends. We created our own performance and toured in Germany and the Netherlands. After a year, we all went our separate ways, and I started teaching at Waldorf schools. In the beginning, I worked as a substitute teacher at various schools, and after some time I found a job teaching in Leiden for three days a week. Since 2011 I have been a self-employed eurhythmist, in addition to a tenured position for a small number of hours at a primary school.’
At some point, you decided to become self-employed. Can you explain why? And how do you like being a freelance eurhythmist?
‘For schools, eurhythmy is an expensive subject: in addition to a eurhythmist, you need to hire a musician, at least, if you are serious about the subject. In addition, it is recommended for the class teacher to be present during the eurhythmy lessons: in eurhythmy classes, children express themselves in ways that they don’t during regular classes. They may act very differently compared their normal behaviour and this may provide the teacher with useful insights.
This double or triple staffing is one of the reasons why eurhythmy has slid to the bottom of the list for many schools. Some schools have even decided to drop the classes altogether. This process has been going on for some years now, and I feel it is a great shame.
My projects are intended to offer schools an affordable way to continue their eurhythmy classes. I pick a story or a fairy tale, and develop it with several classes, in several ways and at several levels.
By offering ‘eurhythmy as a project’, children, teachers, parents and schools share a wonderful experience. Parents, teachers and school management often question the added value of eurhythmy. Many teachers at Waldorf schools have some problems explaining the relevance of the classes. I can organize a parents’ evening or a discussion afternoon at the school. In short, I offer a complete programme, definitely value for money.
By doing so many different projects, I get to see many different children, people and schools, which makes my work tremendously varied and valuable.’
What would you say is the most significant difference between a regular teaching job and the thematic work you do?
‘In doing projects, you try to kindle enthusiasm in people. You want to leave some pearls that will have people think “what is happening here?” In a regular job, you get closer to the children, and you will encounter situations in which the children (and you as their teacher) have to face their own psychological resistance. In fourth grade, for instance, when children start to experience that they are not automatically one with the world around them. For the first time, they feel that ‘I am here and the world is across from me’. Up until the fourth grade, everything takes place in a circle. The lessons have a joint focal point in a story or a poem. In the fourth grade, this safe circle is broken. The children are guided in their new experience of ‘the world and me’, for instance by doing walking exercises in crosswise patterns. To those you add a number of frontal exercises, in which children stand face-to-face, and in which they become aware of their position in the room. This may be a very confronting experience. With a permanent job at a school, you can get ‘under the skin’ of your pupils. Hard as that may sometimes be, it is exciting as well, and you often get to witness the most beautiful processes in the children’s development.’
What kind of eurhythmy teacher are you?
‘I have learned, through trial and error, that you have to give children, no matter how young, the feeling that they “own” the movement assignments I give them. Why would they want to start moving if they do not have a say in the matter? If you can connect with your students, they will follow you to the moon, but in order to get there, you will have to release some control over the matter. If you succeed in doing so, you have created a free zone in which you will see how the children are trying to make the connection. The key to my lessons is that I have to be brave enough to let my own passion go, or to transform it. In addition, humour is essential: I like to move in strange ways when the stories are strange, and to challenge the children to do the same.’
This passion for eurhythmy you mentioned, what is it like?
‘When you are doing eurhythmy, you may feel as though your whole being is music or language. While doing it, alone or in a group, you experience the connection between everything. In this way, eurhythmy feeds my hope and idealism. To me, eurhythmy enables you to explore a hidden source. A source that can help you to find your balance. It allows you to express yourself, while at the same time connecting with something bigger. It is hidden in the origin of the movements. People practising mindfulness may experience similar feelings of oneness. The added value of eurhythmy is that you are actively creating at the same time. So that is why I love eurhythmy.’
Can you tell us a little bit more about this source? What does it contain?
‘The instruments used by the eurhythmist, such as language, eurhythmy movements and music, all stem from the same layer. This layer, which anthroposophists call the etheric, hides the secrets of the cycle of life. This cycle involves alternating processes of growth and death. In eurhythmy, you work from this layer, which is why you could say that the movements you make are universal movements. By using eurhythmy, you can help children (or adults) to connect with this layer, which will help them to learn to deal with these different “phases” and to master them.”
To you, what is the most important lesson you learned in the eurhythmy study programme?
‘Subjects such as music, poetry, educational theory, speech and anthroposophy help you understand what life is all about. This may sound bombastic or vague, but to me, it is not. You learn how to use eurhythmy to express things that may be hard to understand or difficult to explain in a very concrete way. Some lines by Confucius describe very clearly what eurhythmy can do:
Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember,
Involve me and I will understand
As a eurhythmy teacher, you have a tool that you can use to move the world. You can take something that was stuck and get it going again, and bring things back to life. To me, this is an incredibly satisfying process.’
Text: Petra Essink
Photography: Hapé Smeele