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  • Writer's picturewarkenda

A Ballet Teacher in Orff Schulwerk?

“This is not a method it is a process,” echoed in my head as I walked into my first

Orff Schulwerk class. Although I have known about the Schulwerk for many years, it

was never something I thought would ever become part of my life. After all, I am a

classically trained ballet teacher. I teach dance, not music. I have no desire to teach

music. I value those who teach it, but that is not what I do in my life. I was trained as a

Vaganova dancer and teach students of many levels and ages to dance and to love dance.

But as far as Orff Schulwerk training, I never thought this would be something I would

be excited about or see as part of my life.

Perhaps I should back up to show you how I arrived at the point of being a classically trained former ballet dancer turned ballet/dance teacher who found her tribe in those who are practitioners of the Orff Schulwerk method.

More than ten years ago, I made friends with a music teacher who happened to teach at the same theatre summer camp I. We were teaching different skills to the same ages, he was teaching musical theatre and music, while I was teaching dance and choreography. We both taught the same age groups and so many of our classes and students overlapped. As we continued teaching that summer, we both realized that our attitude toward working with the students was quite similar. We both used a great deal of play and natural curiosity to teach various concepts to those in whom we were trusted. We both used both dance and music to convey our subject matter (although in differing amounts), and we both loathed the idea of an end of the week “performance,” tending to prefer end of the week showcases and information sharings instead. We quickly combined whenever we could and started working together.

When my twin daughters joined the choir where he was a director, I was fortunate to meet another Orff Schulwerk teacher. The three of us naturally struck up a friendship based on

similar teaching viewpoints as well as how to teach the performing arts to the students. When they asked me if I was Orff Schulwerk trained, I quickly said no. I am a dance teacher. I knew about this way of teaching; however, it was always on the other side of the campus from where I took classes. It was the “property” of the music educators, and there was no way I wanted or would ever teach music. I felt it better to focus my continued training and

education on dance training, workshops, and education. Doing a “music methodology

course” was never something I would imagine doing.

After my twins left the children's’ choir, I naturally stayed in contact with the instructors, and we often talked about this “Orff Schulwerk” thing. I also lamented that I could not find another dance teacher who taught the way I do; by using play, encouraging the dancers to explore as well as a teaching technique. They gently reminded me each time that that was what Orff Schulwerk was. I firmly reminded them that I am not a music teacher. After many years, I decided to go to one workshop by the PAOSA (Philadelphia Area Orff Schulwerk Association) only to see these teachers in action. It was there where I first laid eyes on a group of performing arts instructors who taught as I do. Yes, they were teaching music, and I teach dance, but the process was the same. The philosophies were the same. I went to every workshop after that and quickly applied to take my Orff Schulwerk Level 1 training at George Mason University.

Now that I have completed the first part of my training, I can honestly say that I have found my tribe and only want to continue to learn and soak up the knowledge from these caring teachers and colleagues. I am not a music educator, yet this is how I teach. Teaching through play in a way that allows the students to explore and take ownership of their learning and creations is something that I fully believe in.

When Carl Orff and Dorthee Gunther started this journey, it was a way of teaching music and movement education where both were integral to the knowledge and well-being of the students. A teacher had to be well versed in both, a beautiful technician of both, and be able to pull from their students the very best of both. This way of teaching was less a “music program” or a “dance program” but an experiment in teaching both at the same time and creating a love as well as an understanding of these arts. At the time, a movement in dance was happening in Europe that moved many dancers away from the strict exactness of the ballet world into a new dance movement for the time, modern expressionism. It was the melding of these where beauty happened. People were ready and excited about creating new ways of performing and seeing the arts. Out of this, a marriage between the playful ideas of this new musical and dance movement was born the Orff Schulwerk process of teaching music and dance.

The first published work (Elementare Musikubung) was published between 1932 and 1935 after a workshop at the Gunther School of Gymnastics and Dance. Notice I did not say that it started in a music school. It started in a movement school! Unfortunately, their ideas were out of step with the times (Nazi Sensibilities and values of the time) and was abandoned. Later the book Musik fur Kinder was published in 1948 and was distributed widely. The core of the Orff-Schulewerk, as I see it, is the individual's ownership of their own artistic understanding and creations in music, language, movement and social activities in elemental ways which become more broad and complex as they are able to process and incorporate different ideas.

From a dance prospective, it is interesting that this time of cultural and artistic change (1890'a - 1930's) included amazing pioneers of dance and movement such as Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban. All of these were pioneers not only in choreography and dance, but also in the fundamentals of body movements and expression. The new Gunther School was formed in part due to suggestions from Mary Wigman who inspired Carl Orff's teaching of elementary music methods based on Wigman's "Witch Dance". Of Wigman's "Witch Dance" Carl of said "She could make music with her body and put music into physicality. I found your dance to be elementary. I too was looking for elementary, the elementary music.: (Orff 1976)

Realizing this beginning is necessary and knowing where and how we started is essential not only to continuing the knowledge but also in attracting new ideas and people to this way of teaching. I never learned that the pioneers the modern and expressionistic dance contributed to this process. Nor did I ever hear that it started in a school for dance. The

instruments used were things the dancers themselves could play. The movements were

experimental as was the music because much of the European arts community was doing

the same thing. They were experimenting with how to make art. The emphasis was not on education for educations’ sake, but art first and foremost. Enjoyment before training was the mantra of this new movement in the art world. Carl Orff, Dorthee Gunther and Mary Wigman just took it to the next logical place. They brought it to the children. They brought it to those who would take the art and create new art. They broke it down to the simplest level and encouraged the children to play and create as well.

The Orff Schulwerk process is not about how to teach music or the correct

objectives needed to appease the administration of the school system to make sure they allow the music program to continue. If that is what one is seeking when walking into an Orff workshop or class, they will be disappointed and confused. Orff Schulwerk is not about specific lesson plans or how to teach a student to play “Clare de Lune” perfectly. Those who walk into the program wanting the concrete answers to how to control the class, how to teach specific objectives, or what to perform on parent’s night will be entirely at odds with this way of teaching. This system is about taking the information and breaking it down to its most simple parts and presenting it in a respectful, playful manner for the artist to learn to love the process of creating and thus wish to continue to create the art that started in the classroom. The beauty of this process is that although it has specific applications in the world of dance and music, it can easily be applied to many other aspects of teaching and learning.

“Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much

rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they

play; they will find that what they have mastered is child’s play.” ~Carl Orff

For a student to wish to learn any subject, several things must be made available and in place for learning to take place, especially for children.

  • A person must find what they are learning valuable for them, useful and for children, fun.

  • A person must find a reason why what they are learning is valuable.

  • A person must feel that they have ownership and a place in what they are learning.

When watching a child play, they are naturally curious and inventive. The Orff Schulwerk way of teaching takes advantage of this and uses it to show them how much fun what we are passionate about and love to do is for us and can be for them. It takes the “instructor” model of education out of the equation and puts all on an equal artistic footing. Everyone

in the room has artistic merit. Some may be farther along the “technique and theory” road, but everyone has artistic value in and of their own just by virtue of being a member of the human race. For many educators, the thought of the teacher as a fellow traveler in the artistic universe is something to fear and shy away from. For Orff Schulwerk leaders, it is something to enjoy and a way to continue learning. This simple thought shift is one that can easily translate from the music and dance classroom to every classroom, parent/child relationship as well as human interaction. When we view one another as travelers on the same road at different points along the journey with no one person’s journey being better or worse than another, we are taking a step into the Orff Schulwerk mentality. When we teach through play and modeling instead of lecturing, punishments, and intimidation, those lessons stick and have more value to us as we grow.

As a dance educator, this is something I believe entirely. Yes, I still teach technique in class. It is a way to keep from being hurt as they dance. However, I am not training the next professional dancer (although it has and will continue to happen), I am teaching lifelong lovers of music and dance. That is my purpose for being on the earth, and that is how this process of thinking fits into my daily life and my life as a dance educator.

When teaching dance, I not only am teaching a specific technique, I am also teaching a love for dance, social skills, communication skills, a love of literature and music, social, historical and political awareness and generally how to be a good human on the earth. The weight I feel to be a good instructor and impart my knowledge to the next generation is daunting at times. To make it more manageable in my heart, I often remind myself that I am teaching the next generation of artists AND humans. By doing this, I am making my tiny corner of the world a better place.

In the education system at the moment, so much emphasis is put on memorizing facts, learning to repeat for tests and philosophical discussions about laws and the rights of man. Not enough emphasis is placed on the beauty of the world and the imagination and creative spark that dwells within us all. It is through arts education; it is through the Orff Schulwerk process of teaching and seeing the world that we encourage the importance of seeing the beauty and creative spark. School may do well to teach us how to live, but it is only art that can teach us WHY to live. We, as the leaders in the music and dance world, need to encourage future leaders to see why they need to continue.


Prof. Kugler, Michael. Carl Orff, 2019, .

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