The end of my semester was filled with paper writing. I seriously doubt you all will read these (well, mom you probubly will) but it's what most of my weeks have been so I want to post them anyway.
Soooo enjoy... or ignore this entry and wait for the next post about my last week of fall semester!
My Obervation Paper for my Practicum Class and my Final Synthesis will offer a bit of insight into the time i spent in Practicum.
Meal Time in Spilopperne
Goal of observation Why observe this case?
Meal time is a daily activity that can be found in schools in both the
United States of America and . After carefully observing meal time in my practicum classroom Spilopperne, at the school Snorretoppen, what did I notice that stood out? What are specific aspects that stood out as different from my personal experience in American schools? Denmark
Method of observation: Why observe this way, which implications does your choice of method have for the observation?
I will be making my observation mixing the methods of Observation of Interaction (Jensen2) and Participant as Observer (Cohen 101). Observation of Interact entails observing and taking notes on the interactions between the children and between the staff and the children. Looking at things like: What are they saying? How do they take initiative? How are they reacting to each other? I will also be looking at how the children behave as individuals within the group. By taking a role as “observer as participant” I am firstly an observer and secondly a participant. In Cohen and Manion’s book Research Methods in Education this method is also referred to as a “’peripheral membership role” where researchers “observe and interact closely enough with the members to establish an insider’s indentify without participating in those activities constituting the core of group membership,” (Cohen 101). In the classroom, I have become an active member of the group, but I do not hold the position that other adults in the room hold. I am not as responsible for directing or monitoring the activities of the day, nor am I responsible for reporting to neither the school’s administration nor the children’s parents. I participate and help out, but am not a full member of the pedagogue team. Within the classroom, I am privileged to whatever information I can see or hear, but the fact I do not speak Danish, limits the amount of information I can access on my own without one of the other teachers translating. This means that, in a way, I only get to fully know that they choose to tell me. There has not been a time when I thought one of the adults translating for me did not tell the truth but I have no way of knowing if the translations they make are direct. Most of the time, the adults who translate for me seem to shorten and condense what the children are saying or what a specific interaction was about. This limitation of my observation is not due to the method I chose, but stems form my inability to speak and understand Danish while trying to work in a Danish school/daycare. A limitation my method of choice does present, is that, as a participant, I am not totally removed from that which I am observing, thus am not able to take notes right in the moment. My notes are taken between activities, during my midday break, or after I am done working for the day.
The actual observation
· Spilopperne, at
. Snorresgade 12, 2300 KBH S Snorretoppen School
· Thursday, October 14th, 2010
· Meal time (roughly 11 to 1130am)
· The children and adults in the classroom who are participating in meal time. Specifically, the children sitting at my table. There are six; Ben, Anna, Michael, Lucas, Bo and Daniel, (for confidentiality purposed each students’ name has been changed for this paper). The ages of the students in the class range from 2 (almost 3) up until 5 years old. The cultural makeup of the class is almost all ethnically Danish children. Of the 17 students here today, all are blonde haired and most have blue eyes. I’ve been told that one of the little girls is actually from
, but since she has moved here, she has learned Danish very well. Just looking around, I cannot pick this little girl out form the rest of the class. Norway
There is no specific announcement or call to the class that is it time to eat. Today, the transition to meal time starts at about 11am. Toys that were out on the tables get put away by the students, toys on the perimeter of the room or in the pillow room get left where they are, discarded for the moment until the children return to them. The students make their way into the washroom to stand in lines for a turn at the long double faucet sink. Out in the main room, Martin (the male pedagogue assistant) has wheeled in the tray with the food, bowls, cups, pitchers and utensils. Three little girls start setting the tables. One walks up and down the tables putting a bowl out at each place. The second girl follows, leaving a cup at the corner of each plate. Lastly the third little girl makes sure that each plate has a fork and knife next to it. As more children finish washing their hands, the seats at the table begin to fill up. Each child goes to, what I have noticed before, seems to be their usual meal time seats. A child from each table takes the metal water pitcher to the sink and fills it with water for the table. At my table, Anna does this. When she gets back she proceeds to pour water into each cup at the table. The other kids move their cups closer to her so that she can reach them all. By the time everyone has water, the pitcher is empty. Before sitting down, Anna goes and refills it.
Once all the children are seated, Martin puts a big bowl full of bare spiral pasta on each of the two big tables, and passes me a bowl to put on the table I am sitting at. Then he opens the warming section of the tray and carefully lifts out three hot bowls full of pasta sauce. The liquid itself is broth, but it is full of soft tomatoes, ground meat, shredded carrots, and plenty of spices. Each table now has a bowl of pasta and sauce for the children’s’ meal. At my table, the children stare at the pasta for a minute. At the other tables, the adults at each one are scooping some pasta onto each of the children’s plates, taking direction from each child about how much they want. I then follow their example and proceed to put pasta on my kids plates. When it comes time for the sauce, Ben tries to help me by moving the bowl closer to his plate. Before I warn him, he picks up the hot bowl. He quickly puts it down again but not before his fingertips have been burned a little bit. He starts to cry. I blow on his hands and kiss his fingertips and after a minute he stops. I ask him if he still wants sauce (by motioning putting some on his plate and looking at him with raised eyebrows saying “ya?”) and he nods to say yes he does want some.
As I offer each of the other 5 kids sauce, only two take any. The others give the sauce bowl a sceptical look. I sit back, serve myself and proceed to eat, watching my table as I go. Ben, seems to be enjoying his pasta and sauce and is using his fork and knife to eat quickly. Anna only took a little sauce, on the side. She is enjoying eating her pasta with her fingers and occasionally dipping a noodle in the small sauce pile on her plate. Michael is eating his plain pasta and looking around the table watching the other children. Daniel is very focused on his own plate. He also did not want sauce. Bo is making a mess with his meal. He accepted sauce on his pasta but has now spilled a few liquid covered noodles onto the table and has smeared the rest of his food around his plate. He is eating but with a mix of his hands and his fork.
Scott sits against the wall across from Ben, he has yet to touch his plain pasta and his attention is fixed on a part of the wall above his head. As I notice this, Martin calls over from the other table, “Daniel, spise ------------!” (Daniel, eat, stop daydreaming and focus). At this point, Daniel gets up and goes to his cubby box. He brings back a lunch box, opens it, and pulls out a plum and two pieces of beard with salami, each wrapped in wax paper. His pasta is ignored the rest of the meal. He offers Bo the plum and Bo takes it, eats half and the rest falls apart over his plate. By now, Ben has finished his first helping and asks for the pasta bowl to serve himself more. The sauce bowl is near him, but before he picks it up, he feels the outside with the back of his fingers. It seems that all is fine because he then picks up the bowl and puts a few big scoops of sauce on his plate. Daniel repeats Ben’s pattern of asking for the bowls he needs and serves himself; this time taking a big helping of the sauce. Bo scoops his own pasta then asks me to put sauce on it for him. Two scoops is not enough, he wants three. As he starts to eat, the pieces of the half eaten plum show up in his pasta. During next few minutes he hands me four different chunks of sauce covered plum that he finds as he eats. I throw them away in the trash. Anna and Michael have also helped themselves to more food, both including sauce this time. Scott is still not focused on eating. He finished one piece of bread and salami, but the other he is just playing with. “Spise Daniel,” I say. Anna sees that the water pitcher is empty again and takes it for another refill.
Daniel puts his fork and knife to together pointing towards the side of his plate. He looks at me and asks a question in Danish. Before I can explain I don’t know what he is asking, Martin responds to him and he then gets up form his seat and picks up his dishes. I look at Martin, “He is finished,” Martin explains. Daniel took his plate to the trash, brushed the extra food off and placed it back on the rolling food tray. He washed his hands in the wash room, then goes into the pillow room to play. Scott is next to decide he is done. He packs up his lunch box and dumps the untouched pasta on his plate in the garbage. Bo and Michael do the same once they have finished. Anna and Ben are the last to finish. Ben has now had three plates of pasta. Anna is working on her second. Ben reaches for the pasta bowl again, but it is empty. He picks it up and tells me he wants more (in Danish but I understood his point). I look at the bowls on the other tables and try to explain that there is no more. “Ny. All gone,” I say as I pick up another empty bowl to show him. He is sad.
By now there are only 4 children in the class still eating, the rest have cleared their plates (some have also cleared their cups), have washed up (or are in line to do so) and are now playing again. Martin asks those not done to move to one table to finish. Anna decides she is done and takes her stuff to go clean up. Ben moves and finishes his chunky meat sauce. He and the other little boy still eating finish at the same time and leave the table together. There is a line in the washroom. Agnethe, the pedagogue, is filling the wash bucket to wipe down the tables. Martin finished picking up the cups and utensils left at the tables and then wheels the food cart back to where it came from. I take the wash bucket from Agnethe and start washing the tables as she calls the kids to change to get ready to go outside. Meal time is over.
Analysis of the observation material
There are a few aspects of meal time that stood out to me as things I would not expect to find in most typical
public schools. For one, there was one single meal, eaten as a group, with real place settings and utensils. In United States , it is the norm for each child to bring his or her own snacks in a lunch box form home, or the child often has the option of purchasing a individually packaged lunch from the school cafeteria carts. The food in the Spilopperne was made for the whole group and it was fresh, not sandwiches or packaged or pre-made. The Danish way of eating the meal as a group is an illustration of the importance the Danes place on community and ‘solidarity’ thinking (Wagner “Outsider’s Perspective”). Coming together as a group around the meal contributes to the sense of unity in the room. The quality of the food is a reflection of the wealth of the country and the school’s access to good materials for their students. That they spend money on making sure the food is fresh and well made and that the teachers and children share the meal, show me a real-life example of the statement,”Nordic early childhood educators strive for homelike atmosphere and close, almost family-like relationships between adults and children (58)’, that Wagner makes in her article “Fishing Naked”. In the States, pasta and sauce is something I am definitely more likely to eat at home than at a day care meal time. America
The role the children took in making meal time happen was also unique. I can see how it directly relates to the way society values community as well as to child competence, a key pillar of child in the Danish education system (Wagner). In “An Outsiders Perspective”, Judith Wagner says, “Cooperation, promise, and shared responsibility are clearly valued for their own sake in Nordic childhood settings and also because they represent requisite orientations for success in Nordic societies that function largely though consensus,” (293). At Spilopperne’s meal time the students had an active role; everything was not just done for them. They were in charge of setting and clearing the table and helped serve them selves. They ate with real plates and utensils, not plastic ones. Wagner comments on this as well, saying, “Danish children do not cut off their fingers (when they use real knives) because they are allowed to take risks and gain experience with knives, which, in turn, enables them to meet culturally situated expectations that they will be competent”, (296). In American public schools, were a special group meal event to take place, it is likely that the students would come into the room after the teachers had set the table and that they would sit and wait for the teacher to serve each child one at a time to keep things orderly and clean. While one or two students might help, they would likely have simple tasks like passing out bread rolls or holding the serving bowl for the teacher.
Looking at the individual children, it was interesting to watch how each one handled the ‘responsibility’ of meal time. Each child behaved at his or her own maturity level. Ben was focused, helpful and conscious of the behaviour expected of him at meal time. Anna, though the smallest in the group, wanted to help out. She made keeping everyone’s water glasses full her priority as she ate. Bo, was happy to be part of the meal, but he had not yet mastered all of the skills necessary to be seen as fully competent at meal time. He made a mess of his food and asked for my help more than the others did. The teachers did not see this behaviour as weird. While they believe in promoting child’s competence, they are also realistic in understanding that not all children will learn at the same pace. They do not punish these children, they simply keep giving them opportunities to work on their skills and continue improving. Scott, wanted to be doing something else, and did not pretend otherwise. Instead of reprimanding or punishing him, the adults reminded him a few times to eat, but then let it go. Wagner explains this reaction in “Outsider’s Perspective” when she writes, “adults in Nordic settings consciously avoid setting boundaries for behaviour and exerting adult authority unless it is absolutely necessary, seeking instead to cooperate with children rather than control them,” (294). It was his choice and they were not going to force him to eat.
Conclusions and Further Questions
Realizing the feelings of home and comfort in the classroom that meal time in this way promotes, I think it would do some American classrooms good to try having meal time together, with place settings and with fresh food like this meal was. The problems of time and funding will come up, but, even of it is only for special occasions, I think meals like this are worth the extra effort. When we speak of the Danish education system’s belief and emphasis of children’s competence, I think it is important to note the pattern that this focus has for the children. Because they are believed to be competent, they are given opportunities to become more able, thus making them become more competent than they were originally. Meal time in the classroom showed the students learning to set and clear tables, participate in group meals, and use their knives and forks capably. The power of trusting and believing that a child can do something has more impact on them actually being able to do it than I think most Americans would consider. Then again, even if the children do not succeed at their first attempts the Danish teachers are there to help. I think it is a good balance of support and challenge that could do some good in American schools.
-How do they decide when meal time is? And how do the kids know?
-Is it up to the parent to choose if their child will bring a packed lunch or eat what the group eats? If so, why does only one child in the class (Scott) seem to bring his own food?
-Where does the food come from and who pays for it?
--- Cohen, Louis, and
Manion. "Chapter 5 Being a Careful Observer." Research Methods in Education. 4th ed. Lawrence : Routhledge, 1996. 94-111. Print. London
---Jensen, Alis. Observation in a Danish Context :. Fall 2010. Advice for CMC Practicum assignment. DIS,
. Copenhagen, Denmark
---Wagner, Judith T. "Fishing Naked; Nordic Early Childhood Philosophy, Policy and Practice." Young Children (Sept 2004): 56-62. Print.
---Wagner, J. T. (2006): An Outsider’s Perspective: Childhoods and Early Education in Nordic Countries. In: Nordic Childhoods and Early Education. Information Age Publishing, 289-306 ISBN: 0-59311-350-1. (324p.)
FINAL SYNTHESIS: A RUN DOWN OF MY SEMSTER IN CMC
Fall 2010 in DIS’s
Child Development Program
The concepts of the competent child and lived democracy in the Nordic classroom philosophy are often described as two separate things. I, however, see the lived democracy policy to be an extension of the belief that children are competent. According to one of the first lectures in my DIS practicum class this semester, trusting that a child is competent means trusting that they are ABLE; Able to do (at the developmental level in relation to their age and maturity) and able to learn. It is a teaching strategy that pushes the children to be active and to do tasks on their own, instead of adults always having to do them for them, (Jensen). I see the lived democracy policy as augmentation of the competent child idea. Not only do many Nordic teachers expect their children to be able to do things on their own, like change clothes to go outside or serve themselves at meal time; they also believe that the children can, and should, have a dynamic say in what their learning experience is like on a day to day basis, (Neel).
Readings and Theories
In her article, “Fishing Naked: Nordic Early Childhood Philosophy, Policy and Practice,” Judith Wagner writes of an experience she had in a Nordic classroom when the facilitating teachers were trusting in their children’s’ competence to do a task that Wagner, an American teacher, would not believe primary school children to be able to accomplish. When the students got to school that day, the teachers asked what they should do with all the gorgeous weather outside. In response, the children exclaimed that they wanted to sew shorts. Instead of laughing or saying ok and then having the children make some kind of paper and yarn art project in the image of shorts, the Nordic teachers said OK and had their students help make the request happen. They actually took a train together into town to buy fabric, then returned and cut the fabric into patterns. Wagner says she was ‘horrified’ to see the young students cutting with adult scissors and sewing with sharp needles because she believed the children were obviously going to hurt themselves. What happened was that,”Some actually made shorts. Some wound up with wads of fabric they used as balls. One said hers was now a pillow,” (Wagner, Fishing Naked). What did not happen, was that the children impaled themselves or ended up a bloody mess after using the scissors or needles. It turned out to be a successful day in the classroom. The students helped decide what to do, they helped get the materials to be able to do it, and they did it; all with the adults in the classroom helping but not overpowering the children’s own abilities.
This activity and how it came to happen is a perfect example of the Nordic concepts of competent child and lived democracy. Instead of having a lesson for the day planned, or asking the children what they wanted to do then ignoring their request when it was an activity readily available in the classroom, the teachers structured the day around what the students wanted. In this way, the students were more dynamically interested and involved in the activity. Even though sewing shorts may not generally be a usual pastime for primary school aged children, and it is almost certainly something they could not do all on their own; the teachers here still let the student try. The teachers shared their knowledge and experience of how and where to get the materials, and how to trace and cut patterns, but they did not simply do everything for the students. They taught by example and then encouraged the children to try on their own; showing the kids that their teachers believed they were capable of sewing the shorts.
In Wagner’s other article, “An Outsiders Perspective”, she relates the classroom focus on cooperation, compromise and shared responsibility, (all aspects of a successful democracy) to the fact that “Nordic societies function largely through consensus.” The policy is there to help the children grow up to be helpful members of their societies who understand, on a basic level because they have been working together this way in their classrooms for years, the skills needed for a successful democratic structure.
Another policy that Wagner gives strong attention to is the prevalence of free play in Nordic classrooms. This is yet another branch of how lived democracy is animate in the school. Instead of lesson plans or just telling the children what they are going to do for the day, much time is given for the children to do what they chose within the classroom setting. In her article, Wagner explains,”the Nordic concept of free play is play that is free from excessive adult control, over supervision, and interference,” (Outsiders). I think this is an important distinction. It is not that the day is a free-for-all with children running around doing anything and everything they want. It is simply a less structured way of spending the day learning. When, later in this paper, I talk about my experience at my practicum site, I will come back to the ways that free play promotes learning.
From Class Discussions
In our classroom discussions, a Denmark approach to teaching that many of us American students had to adjust to was the “Shit Happens” mentality towards accidents and tears. This mentality says that if you, the adult, freak out about something, the children are more likely to freak out as well (Jensen). Accidents are going to happen. It is just a part of childhood. It is important to comfort the child if they need comforting, but not to make a bigger deal of the accident than it needs to be, (Jensen). Looking again through the competent child lens, this approach makes sense to me. This way, children are more likely to learn to see problems as a natural part of life. They learn how to ‘self help’ and ‘self sooth’ and they grow more independent, (Jensen). Looking at some of the children I know back at home in the USA, I wish they had been raised more in this manor. Maybe that way they would not see tears as a way to get attention or not be shut down by every little problem until their parents can come solve it for them. I think it is important to ask Americans: Do we, as adults, hover too much, wanting and waiting to help our children at any sign of a problem? Are we really helping them or are we crippling them for the future by not building their confidence and independent experience?
In my Children in a Multicultural Context Seminar, discussing the competent child ideology one day lead us to ask a tough question in terms of multicultural classrooms. Can we trust kids to integrate themselves? The thought process was this, in a multicultural classroom, making sure that the children of different backgrounds get along and mix together is important when trying to build a cohesive class atmosphere, (Sbahi Biehl). When treating the children as competent beings and letting them have an active say in what they do, and with who they do it, throughout the day, we risk the children not choosing to mix with other kids who are different than themselves.
As a class, we did not come up with an answer to this question. Honestly, I believe it depends on the classroom and the children. When it comes to acceptance and accepting people of cultures different than your own, kids are greatly influenced by the beliefs held by the adults in their lives- their parents, family friends and teachers (Le Roux). Cultural values about integration and multiculturalism in a society filter down to the children of that population, (Sbahi Biehl). In Denmark, I have come to see that the issue of integration is not always handled in a positive way. Even many of those who are willing to welcome people of other cultures into Denmark, are inviting them to become more Danish rather than to let the Danish identity be changed to include aspects of the other new cultures here. This is not a good nor bad thing, but I cannot see how it could not affect the way the Danish children will reaction to students different from themselves in the classroom. Is it a good thing to just trust that the children in schools will look past the difference of children from other cultures in their classes and welcome them to be included? I cannot say for sure, but I do not trust that this would/will happen without the teacher working to foster an inclusive environment.
Here, the ‘children are competent ideal’ becomes tricky. Grown adults are challenged by integration issues. Sometimes they deal with them well, other times, problems occur. How are we to judge the age level when a person’s development should mean they are capable of dealing with integration? I do not think my original question of trusting kids to integrate themselves can be well answered because I do not feel that this last question has a single true answer.
I saw the concepts of the competent child and lived democracy every day I went to work at my practicum site this semester. I worked in a classroom of 2, 3 and 4 year olds in the school Snorretoppen in Islands Brygge. My kids, under the statute of the competent child, are expected to clean up after themselves when they are finished with any activity, to use the restroom by themselves (though sometimes help is needed), to help set up for meal time, to serve themselves, and to use real plates, cups and silverware and to dress and undress themselves whenever we transition between indoor and outdoor time. These are some of the obvious and easier to describe ways the competent child ideology can be seen in my class; there are many more subtle examples.
On my first day, we went on a trip to a movie theatre in the centre of town; 28 young children and 6 adults. We walked 15 minutes, took a train, and walked another 10 minutes just to get to the theatre. Another day, we all walked 25 minutes to Max’s (a little boy in the class) home for a play day and lunch. Max is newer and had been having a hard time transitioning to the class. The trip was planned as a way for him to help connect his home life with his school life and to strengthen his comfort level with his classmates (Neel). Without an underlying belief in the competency of each of the children, trips like these would never be possible. Adults would be too worried about a child getting lost or hurt to even consider walking or taking a train out into the city like that.
Looking at the outdoor play structures on the playground at my practicum site, I was initially surprised at the complexity and ‘danger level’ for such young kids to be playing on/in. When I asked a pedagogue about it, she told me that the playground is designed to push the kids to be physical and to test themselves, (Neel). It is supposed to be a place where they can climb, swing, balance, drive the pedal cars or running bikes, and risk failing or getting hurt in an environment that is relatively safe and where, if someone does happen to get hurt, they can be helped and comforted. By allowing the kids to play in an environment that challenges them this way, the adults are showing that they have confidence in the kids abilities to succeed at these challenges. This, in turn, gives the children more confidence in themselves to try new things and gain experiences that will improve their ability to handle even more challenging tests. It is a cycle of trust building confidence, confidence building experience and experience building ability. My teachers trust our students, and my students are learning new things each day.
Lived Democracy is also visible in our classroom. Each day I went, they teachers had not planned out every activity for the day. We did have a few structured group moments throughout the 5 hours I was there, such as meal time together, a short circle time together, nap time together, and, often, after nap time everyone would go outside together. However, the rest of the day FREE PLAY reined. Remembering back to when I spoke of Judith Wagner’s explanation of Nordic free play, here, free play is a way of learning. Yes the kids are choosing what they do and how they do it, but almost all of the games that I, at their request, ended up playing with my kids, had a learning component to them. Some of the most popular games included hammers and nails, memory, Legos, Plus-plus, drawing, puzzles, and a picture search game called “wildcat”. The free time was not a crazy chaotic free-for-all, though the first day kind of felt that way for me. It was, in fact, a day of learning; of learning how to choose how to spend your time, to organize activities and clean up afterwards, to communicate with classmates and teachers, and to work on the skills that your chosen activity required. Many of the games utilized memory skills, planning skills, fine motor skills abilities and being creative. The games are used to teach in a way that the children find fun and interesting because they are CHOOSING to spend time playing them.
Much of what I have said so far applies to the Danish approach to the concepts of competent child and lived democracy. But what about how these concepts are viewed in America? In my experience in the USA, the teachers are the boss in the classroom because they are RESPONSIBLE for the students in their class. Instead of the calmer “shit happens” mentality toward childhood tumbles and accidents, in the US, is it a teacher’s job to protect and monitor the children to prevent accidents from happening. But how does this effect trusting the children to be competent or letting the classroom run in a lived democracy fashion? It hinders both!
How is a teacher supposed to feel comfortable letting her kids challenge themselves with the possibility of failing, when their failure could mean she gets blamed for not being careful enough in the classroom? Not every parent in America would blame a teacher for an accident happening at school. Many have more sense than that. But, within the society, the easy way out of blaming someone else for problems or mistakes, by suing them in court, is too common for many teachers to risk finding those few parents who would cause such a ruckus.
In Wagner’s, “An Outsiders Perspective”, she makes the comment that,”A key difference is that American preschools and schools are not conceptualized as democracies, but rather, as places where students learn about democracy.” US students learn more about democracy, than in a democratic fashion. One big reason for this is the State test score regulations and teaching expectations are, for the most part, too ridged to allow such a free flow way of structuring the classroom. Even in Denmark, the effectiveness of the free flow classroom structure is up for discussion (Sbahi Biehl). In “Fishing Naked” Judith Wagner asks some very big questions for her American teacher friends to consider.
-Do we think too often of childhood as a preparation for what comes next instead of as the real deal, in and of itself? The publication of state standards for kindergarten and initiatives resulting from the No Child LEft Behind Act have caused us to spend much more time thinking about preschool as a preparation for learning to read and write. Have we gone overboard?
-How do we include children, REALLY INCLUDE THEM, in democratic decision making, while still providing appropriate guidance and boundaries for them?
-Are we so fearful about children getting hurt, centers getting sued, or dangers (real and imagined) in the world beyond the school yard that we deprive children of the good childhood?"( Wagner).
I feel each and every one of these questions needs to be asked of schools and parents. I plan to use them when I get home to monitor myself and make sure I give the children in my life the trust and respect they deserve to grow up independent and confident in themselves. But I also think it is important to ask reversed questions about the Nordic approach.
--Is too much time spent on free play, in a way that prevents the children from learning the self discipline that comes with academic school work?
--Doe we give the children enough guidelines and boundaries that they still respect our roles as teachers and the school system? Or are we teaching them to disregard structure and only do what they want when they want to?
-- Just what is the Nordic way of schooling preparing our children for and is that enough?
--Why is the good childhood so important?
I think that these questions are all interesting and tough enough to be able to write an individual paper about each one. But for now, I’ll leave it to you to ponder the answers.
When our class went to London, we got a chance to see how their school system compares to the US’s and Denmark’s. My conclusion, is that the London schools we went to were set up a lot like many American schools back home, but they also gave importance to some key Danish ideas that I feel are lacking in the States. At William Davis Primary School, for example, the classrooms were structured very much like classrooms in the US, with letters and numbers and lesson plans covering the walls and the focus clearly on academic subject matter. But the teachers also seemed to try to run the classrooms in a lived democracy fashion that got the kids actively participating and reflecting on their school experience. Something that impressed me was, even though it was only an elementary school, they had a student council made up of children from each grade to help plan school policies and functions (Neel). In almost every classroom, I also saw art projects and activities utilizing creativity letting the kids be kids in an academic setting.
Looking from far away, without probing deeper, many of the differences I see in the USA and Danish schools come from differences in bigger underlying values in the two societies. The home like classroom atmospheres, very close relationships between adults and students, and free play speak to the importance that the Danish people place in community and being a member of a greater whole. While the more institution like setting, clear boundaries in the teacher-student relationship and major focus on academic learning points back to the individualistic ideas in the United States and the competitive nature of that society. In Denmark, it seems to me that even the older students are going to school to grow and mature into members of society while exploring who they are and how they relate to the people around them. They don’t necessarily know what they want to do with their lives and that is ok, there is time it figure it out. Older students in the United States go to school to train to get a good job, join the work force, and earn money. It can be a very competitive atmosphere and to succeed, you often need to want to “play the game’ to win.
When there are two opposite ways of viewing something, nine times out of ten my opinion will be that what is really needed is a balance of the two. In this case, I feel that a balance of the structured, academic based US school systems needs to be mixed with the free flow, relationship and personal skills based approach here in Denmark. Alone, both systems have good qualities and bad qualities. I think, if someone who understood both approaches could find a way to create a school that took the best parts of both, a truly amazing learning environment would be created. If I were trying to create a place like this, here are a few things I would include:
From the US
-Focus on reading, writing and math
-A slightly competitive atmosphere that encourages each student to strive to do their absolute best
-some planned lessons
-A homelike building setting
-Close relationships between teachers and students
- some free play
-Belief in the competent child
-using lived democracy in the classroom (without undermining teacher authority when needed)
I would also want: lots of parent involvement and many extra curricular activities to be offered.
I like a lot of what I have learned about how the classroom is run in Denmark, but I also feel that I have not gotten enough experience as a teacher in the United States to be able to make informed arguments about what needs to be changed and what is the way it is for good reason. As I learn more back home, I will do my best to remember the lessons I learned about Danish schooling and reflect on them as I learn more about being a teacher in America. I do not think there is only one right way to teach children, and I think that Danish teachers can learn as much from American teachers as American teachers can learn from Danish ones.
When I go back, the concepts of the competent child and lived democracy are two big ideas that I know I will bring with me. As I learn more, I will likely have to adjust these Nordic concepts to fit into the American society, but I will deal with that challenge when I come to it.
Another part of my semester that I plan on bringing home with me (though it does not have much to do with lived democracy or the competent child ideas) is how important multicultural education is for children. My seminar class taught me so much about culture, language and acceptance. For the final project, I was in a group that created a workshop for teachers to gain an understanding of their own beliefs, prejudices and classroom practices as well as to provide awareness and multicultural understanding activities for the teachers to use within their classrooms. The workshop - the mentality behind it and the specific activities - is a concrete aspect of my time in the Children in a Multicultural Context class that I plan to bring home with me and use in the US.
When I started the semester in this class, I had some specific goals in mind for things I wanted to learn and accomplish. Goals like – be able to hold a short conversation with one of my kids at practicum without struggling through it, - consider and discuss practical ways it will be possible to translate things I learned here back to the US, - understand, from a more Danish perspective, the main features of the Nordic childhood philosophy, and - learn how to spontaneously pull together activities that the kids want to do.
Apart from fully achieving the conversation goal, I feel like I have accomplished much of what I set out to do this semester. Both in and out of class I have discussed the pros and cons of the Danish education approach and feel like I have a good grip on the ideas of democracy, egalitarianism, freedom, emancipation, cooperation and solidarity looking from a more Danish mindset. I’ve gotten some experience at setting up and participating in spur of the moment activities during my days working in the classroom at my practicum. In my seminar class, we considered ways that we would translate our Danish lessons here to our lives at home. For many of us, our approach right now is to remember as much as we can, and, as we learn more at home, continue to compare and contrast the pros and cons of each method before choosing how we want to approach work with children.
For myself, I have learned how much I enjoy working with children. Each day I left my practicum I would be filled with a calm happiness that, I think, came from getting to spend the day surrounded by the innocent happiness that made up the majority of my kids’ worlds. For those hours I could put aside any other worries or stresses and focus on the kids and helping them learn and enjoy the day. I have also learned lessons about the power of nonverbal communication. As a dancer, I have always been acutely aware that we are constantly communicating with more than just our words. But I had never before been forced to try and communicate nonverbally with young kids who did not understand why I was not talking to them or that I could not understand them when they were talking to me. Nonverbal communication is a completely different experience when everyone else in the room has no problem communicating verbally with each other. It was a challenge but one that taught me a lot about how I read others and how I can convey messages to them without using spoken language.
One morning in class, a few boys sitting at a table across from the bathroom said something to me in Danish and I could not figure out what they were trying to tell me. I recognized Oliver’s name, but nothing else, and since Oliver was not even sitting with these boys I did not know what to make of it. Eventually, I heard a yell coming from the bathroom. When I went to investigate, there was Oliver, sitting on the toilet yelling for an adult. I tried to ask him what he needed but he just looked at me. I went out the door to see if another adult was near by but, when there wasn’t, I went back to Oliver. That time he made it clear that he needed me to help him wipe his bottom. Ok, I laughed at myself internally. Why didn’t I think of that before? After I finally understood, I was able to help him and the morning continued as normal. But I feel like this is a perfect example of how even the most simple thing, like a child needing my help to wipe after going to the bathroom, became a puzzle to be solved while working at my practicum site. The experience challenged me in ways I had not previously imagined but it was a wonderful way to learn.
Next semester, I will hopefully continue at my practicum site from this fall. My new goals for there include: getting to know the students better on a personal level, continuing to work towards being able to have short conversations without struggling, and to improve my relationships with the other pedagogues to be able to have deeper discussions about my questions and observations. For my Child Development class, in general, I want to continue working towards having a better understanding of the key concepts and underlying motivations within the Danish childhood philosophy. I learned so much this past semester that next semester has a lot to live up to. I am worried that next semester will be a lot of repeating and not a lot of new material. I hope that is not the case, and even if it is, that I will be able to learn as much as I can about myself and being a teacher. I look forward to meeting all the new students and seeing how they will help shape the spring DIS Child Development Program.
----- Le Roux, Johann (2001): Social Dynamics of the Multicultural Classroom, in Intercultual Communication: A Reader, Wadsworth, UK
----- Jensen, Alis. "Children in a Multicultural Context Practicum Class." DIS FALL 2010. Vestergade 23, Copenhagen, Denmark. Fall 2010. Lecture.
----- Neel, Trisha J. Practicum Expeience. Fall 2010. Personal journal. Snorretoppen School, Copenhagen, Denmark.
-----Neel, Trisha J. Study Tour Notes. Fall 2010. Personal journal. London. United Kingdom.
-----Sbahi Biehl, Maja. "Children in a Multicultural Context Seminar Class." DIS FALL 2010. Vestergade 7 and 24, Copenhagen, Denmark. Fall 2010. Lecture.
------Wagner, J. T. (2006): An Outsider’s Perspective: Childhoods and Early Education in Nordic Countries. In: Nordic Childhoods and Early Education. Information Age Publishing, 289-306 ISBN: 0-59311-350-1. (324p.)
-----Wagner, J , (2004). Fishing naked: Nordic early childhood philosophy, policy and practice, in Young Children Vol 59, #5, Sept p. 56 – 62.
My final paper for Ballet was a research paper.
The DANCER & THE MAN
“Put a label on you and you’re dead. I am not a person of mystery. I think one of the truest things I can say about myself is that I am a man of enormous curiosity. My greatest pleasure is to wake up every morning and discover something new- something I have never known or encountered before. If that sense of curiosity is part of the act of being mysterious then I’m being misunderstood,” -Erik Bruhn (Gruen 204).
For a man who did not like labels, Erik Bruhn has had many such words applied to him. A ‘dancer’s dancer , a legend, a loner, a perfectionist, an aristocrat of dance and more have been used to describe the man who is known around the dance world as one of the greatest male dancers of recent time. His career has certainly been documented well with a number of pictures, films, and words that have been written about him. Yes Erik Bruhn was an amazing performer, but he was so much more than just that. He was a choreographer, a partner, a director, a teacher, a brother and son, a lover and a friend. Erik Bruhn was a man who poured himself into life with the same intensity he poured himself into so many of the roles he is famous for. To learn of his life as an artist is important for he left many marks on today’s dance world. However, I also think is it worth time to examine the rest of Erik as well; to look at who he was a man, not just as a dancer.
Let us start though with dance, for that almost always came first for Erik. At age 6 he started dancing at the Gentofte Dance School in Denmark where his sisters took class. When his talent was recognized his mother was encouraged to take him to the Royal Danish Ballet School. He did not want to go, but his Aunt bribed him saying, “I’ll tell you what. If you take the audition I will give you one whole krone. And if you pass the audition I will give you another krone! (Gruen 15). Erik considered her offer and replied,”All right I’ll go. Give me my krone,” (Gruen 15). That spring of 1937 Erik Bruhn became a student at one of the world’s most prestigious ballet schools. A school that was grounded in the August Bournonville Ballet tradition, which would have a very great influence on the way the world viewed Erik’s dancing later in life. (Gruen).
Bournonville Ballet is grounded in viewing dance as an art. It is a way of dancing that exemplifies the feeling’ I love to dance and this is so very easy” (Byrgesen). In a technical view point, Bournonville dancers are trained to show no preparation for the movements they performed. The style was to have an easy flow and the movement a look of effortlessness. Later in life when comparing Bournonville ballet to the Russian style, Erik commented that
“You see, the strength you develop with Bournonville is in the feet, ankles and calves. Less in the thighs, which accounts for the fact that Danish dancers never have bulging muscles, the way most Russian male dancers have. We danced with ballon- the ability to pause while jumping in mid-air- which the Russian also have, but which is achieved somewhat differently… Another big difference is lifting a partner. Bournonville didn’t have one lift! In the Russian male repertoire- from Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake, to Nutcracker- there are endless lifts. When I had to begin doing lifts it nearly destroyed me,”(Gruen24-25).
Erik learned the Bournonville style well but, even as a youngster, he was not content to settle. He wanted to push himself and the style to reach a fuller potential. This too did not always go over well with his instructors. When, a few years later, he worked with Russian teacher Vera Volkova, he experienced differences in his home training and Russian ballet. ”The Bournonville technique is very good for the male dancer, but it has certain limitations which Volkova, with her Russian background, improved upon. She did not change the Bournonville technique but added to it,” (Gruen 56). Even later in life, Erik’s friendship with other celebrated dancer Rudolf Nureyev also highlighted the differences in Bournonville and Russian technique styles.
As a student at the Royal Danish academy, Erik hated being the center of attention and for the first few years he was very unhappy. His report cards would come home saying Erik was “too quiet, too passive, too withdrawn,” (Gruen 20). At times he had some rebellious confrontations with teachers with whom he could not agree with or respect. He was determined to be the best dancer he could be and for this reason he sought out the best teachers he could to help.
It was 1951 when Erik worked with Vera Volkova as his teacher. Apart from the Russian style, she taught him many things, including how to fix his sunken chest as he danced, (Gruen 55). Volkova had a way of teaching using little tricks (like imagining a button in the middle of your chest being pulled outward and up) that brought her lesson to life in a way the dancers she worked with could really grasp and understand, meaning they could really change and improve. A downside of this period in Erik’s life was that Volkova got him THINKING so hard about dance that he started over thinking the movement and could not move freely because he was so wrapped up in thought. This became an issue and caused some fights between the two dancers. Once they were not working together, he was able to reflect better on all she had shared with him and really use all that she had taught him. (Gruen).
These conflicts foretold aspects of Bruhn’s future independent and reckless streaks. He graduated from the school in 1947 and instead of starting immediately in the Danish Royal Ballet company as expected, he took a leave of absence and spent his first 6 months as a professional dancer in London with the Metropolitan Ballet. That summer, Erik witnessed a performance that we would remember the rest of his life. He saw Jean Babilee dance the part of the Bluebird and was completely floored by what he saw. In fact, it almost made him decide to quit dancing. “If I couldn’t dance like him, was it worth dancing, (Erik Bruhn: I Am the Same, Only More. )
He returned to the Danish Royal Ballet Theater but could not be content to stay put. He made soloist in the company in 1949, (Ballet Encyclopedia). During the time he was still a part of the Danish Royal Ballet company, he also worked a lot with the American Ballet Theater, starting in 1949, and became a principal dancer with them in 1955. When American Ballet Theater was having money issues in the late 1950’s, Erik returned to Denmark, but to a rather cold reception. The company was in turmoil, many the dancers were not welcoming and the press was particularly harsh of his performances. (Gruen).
In the 1959-1960 season Erik worked for the first time with New York City Ballet in order to get the chance to work with acclaimed choreographer, George Balanchine. While he did dance in ballets such as Swan Lake and the Nutcracker that season, and from the outside it looked like Erik was flourishing in New York, he did not fit well there. The relationship between Bruhn and Balanchine was especially strained. When the press’s reaction to his opening performance of Swan Lake with Maria Tallchief heralded the headline, “Tallchief and Bruhn Take Over Balanchine’s Swan Lake” (Gruen 88), things got even worse. This company was not run around it’s ‘stars’ but intended the focus to be on the repertoire instead. Erik was a dancer that draws lots of attention as an individual; this did not make his time with the company easier. When Bruhn looked back at this time with Balanchine and NYCB, he said, “Things just never seemed to jell between us, and I can honestly say that this was the most destructive and negative relationship I have ever had,” (Gruen 90). While Balanchine could not accept or support Erik’s ‘stardom’ Erik could not accept the extremely fast paced and lack of organizational communication of Balanchine’s means of running his company.
Yet Erik still returned to dance with the Company again a few years later in 1963 at the age of 35. This time turned out to be even worse than the first.
A strange illness appeared with he returned that left him scared and confused. But the doctors said they could find no cause, so he attributed the sickness to his unhappiness dancing with the New York City Ballet (Gruen 138). He and Balanchine fought again during this visit and at one point Erik even told Balanchine that he was the reason Erik was so sick, (Gruen 140). Weeks into the season, Bruhn left the New York City Ballet company, but his health did not improve. Doctors still could not find reason for the pains and Erik lived and continued dancing, in spite of the sometimes crippling pain, for the next 12 years. (Gruen 141),
In 1960 Bruhn danced with the ABT and toured Russia partnering with Maria Tallchief. This tour lead him to be invited as a guest artist at the famous Bolshoi Ballet. It was in the fall of 1961 that Erik met Rudolf Nureyev and started a friendship that would have a great lasting impact on the lives of both men. This friendship though, may also be the reason that the Bolshoi changed their offer for him to come dance in Russia. 1962 saw Erik and Rudolf putting together a small show of duets and quartets with they and their partners. During this show, Erik was injured. He had been engaged to dance in America next but instead had Nureyev take his place. Erik went along to coach Rudolf in the Bournonville style. It was a big moment for the Russian, because it was the first time the American public saw him dance. This period of their lives saw the two dancers traveling mostly in America, London and Denmark, and living and dancing together a lot. The press’s obsession with comparing the two performers was not easy, but they did their best not to place importance in the journalists’ remarks.
The next few years found Erik Bruhn dancing all over the world with a number of ballet companies. He danced in America, across Europe and even in Australia. The two companies he still worked most with were the American Ballet Theater and the Danish Royal Ballet. Erik played a huge number of roles in many of the great ballets over his career as a danseur noble. From La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker to Giselle, Le Spectre de la Rose, Romeo and Juliet, Carmen and Miss Julie, he certainly worked long and hard. Erik returned to Denmark again, in 1963, and was made a Knight of the Order of Danebrøg (Ballet Encyclopedia). Also that year, in Paris, he was awarded the Nijinsky Prize, (Gruen 131).
Bruhn also worked as a choreographer and a teacher. 1953 was the year he got his first big experiences doing both. The first piece was called Concertette to the music of Interplay by Morton Gould, (Grune 58). As a teacher, he worked with young Danes in his hometown and learned a lot from them that would influence his teaching later on. Two of his most promising students during this year were Peter Martian and Peter Schaufuss, (Gruen 133). A choreographic challenge that Erik took on often was to rework and reconstruct some of the classic ballets including: Napoli (in London- 1962), Giselle (in Copenhagen- 1964 and Stockholm- 1969), La Sylphide (in Torono-1964, Italy-1966, Stockholm-1968, New York-1971), Swan Lake (Act II in Italy-1966, the whole piece in Toronto-1967), Romeo and Juliet (in Italy-1966),Les Sylphides (in Copenhagen-1972 and Toronto-1973) and La Ventana- a Pas de Trois (in New York-1975, (Gruen 236-238). He was very successful in balancing his dancing career with his choreographing work.
While working on his first major remake, La Sylphide in 1965 with the National Ballet of Canada, Bruhn was injured during the show and Rudolf Nureyev once again, at Erik’s request, stepped in and took his friend and teacher’s place as James while Erik healed. When Bruhn returned to the role a few days later, his dancing and performing were still as great as they ever were. (Gruen 144-145). In 1966, he went to work in the Rome Opera House and staged three pieces, La Sylphide, Swan lake act II and Romeo and Juliet. The work left him completely drained. During the short break he took in Cannes after leaving Rome, he was hit with another bad case of stomach pains. Doctors told him this time that it was a stress reaction; that he had been bottling up too much tension (Gruen 148).
Despite not having concrete answers about the reason for his illness, Erik was soon back to work. In 1967 he debuted another entirely redone presentation, this time of Swan Lake, with the National Ballet of Canada. One change he had made that caught a lot of attention was that the character of Von Rothbart was changed from a male to a female role, (Gruen 150). The depth he created in the character of the Prince was seen as a good improvement, but even Erik commented that he never fully developed or did justice to the Black queen character he created (Gruen 150).
Another turn Erik Bruhn took in his dancing career was to take on the role of Artistic Director. He was offered the post at the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1964 but it took him three years to accept. When he did, in October of 1967, he got to work reorganizing the school, and reorganizing the company. He felt that the Swedes ‘did not know how to dance. (Gruen 156) and that was what he intended to change. He worked very hard at waking up the dancers and breathing life into the company. His early time as the Swedish company’s artistic director brought with it more spells of intense sickness that sent Erik to the hospital. “I don’t know how I managed,” Bruhn said, “but it ended that I remained director of the Royal Swedish Ballet for over four years! (Gruen 158). During this time he also continued to dance and perform with various other companies.
In 1970 he gave what he called his ‘last performance’ in Denmark as James in La Sylphide. He had been dancing with the company for 25 years and he felt he was done (Gruen 166). Soon after that, Erik decided that he would either have to do something about getting rid of the recurring, sometimes crippling, pains in his body or he would need to retire from dance. Partners and directors at the time did not want to accept that Erik could really be retiring, but finally in late 1971 he sent out official word of his retirement, (Gruen 174). Saying goodbye was hard but the retirement brought great relief to Erik.
He chose to travel. And, for awhile, his pains left him; only to come back as intense as ever a short time later and bring Bruhn’s world crashing down. He had quit dance to get better. Yet here he was sick still. All he felt he could do was return to work. He agreed to stage a piece for the Danish Royal Ballet, but enlisted the help of a young dancer named Kevin Haigen. During the working process Bruhn was admitted into the hospital once again, when he left he had a major episode which he calls “the first really serious collapse I had ever had,” (Gruen 178).
By the end of 1973, while working on the play Rashomon, Erik’s pains grew so bad that he was forced to seek out a specialist. A few days later he had a fit so bad that he was rushed to the hospital where the doctor’s decided to operate for appendicitis. After the surgery, which took much longer than it was supposed to, the doctors came to Bruhn telling him that they had found the real problem: a perforated ulcer. He was told he needed another corrective operation but that after that, he should finally be free of the pain, (Gruen 187). The surgery was a success and Erik’s pain was gone!
Bruhn’s next challenge came when he was asked to play the Role of Madge the witch in a production of La Sylphide in Canada. The character was so different from Erik’s usual princely roles that he jumped at the chance to test himself. Though 46 years old now, Bruhn’s freedom from pain allowed him to make “a stunning comeback as a dancer,” (Gruen 195). However, he did not come back as many expected him to. Instead Bruhn did it his way; “I made up my mind that I would never again dance the Prince roles. You see in ballet, the idea is to be young , beautiful and strong. You have to be eighteen, and if you’re not, you have to look it. For me, this was no longer possible. It would be a travesty to perform roles one was no longer suited for. One would look foolish and that’s the last thing I wanted to do,” (Gruen 195). The next few years saw Bruhn dancing and working with mainly two companies: the American Ballet Company and the National Ballet of Canada.
Back in Canada, he staged a new version of Coppelia, and stepped into the character role of Dr. Coppelius himself. Other character roles he took on during this period of his career include Abdul-Rakhman- the villainous Saracen Sheiku in the American Ballet Company’s production of Raymonda and a fiery Latin in Kenneth MacMillan’s Las Hermanas (Gruen 189-199). But overall, Erik was unsatisfied with the roles that ABT was finding for him. Finding roles that he could fit himself into without having to change any steps or push his body to be something it wasn’t, was not an easy task. Eventually, Michel Fokine’s Petrouchka came around. Here it was, finally a role that Erik could really pour himself into! What was produced was a performance made great by Bruhn’s deeply thought out personal understanding and portrayal of the tortured trapped puppet. Erik’s maturity and life experience, that his age brought, allowed him to work with the role in ways that a younger man would not have been capable of, (Gruen 200-201).
A special moment came in 1977, when Erik Bruhn returned home to dance in Copenhagen for the first time since his farewell performance in 1970. This time around, he came as the Moor in Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane. The intensity of his performance showed his Danish audience how amazing he still was, and they loved him for it. Despite his age, Erik’s career as a performer was still going strong. He was still performing and choreographing with a number of company’s both familiar and new to him.
Never one to shy away from new experiences or to improve himself, Erik also got involved with teaching again, primarily at the National Ballet of Canada.
Erik had always pushed the dancers he worked with to consider their roles in deeper ways that improved their understanding of the characters by looking at the underlying motivations of the movements. He had been coaching others and using his own understanding, to improve their performances in otherwise impossible ways for many years. But now it was different; he held classes, stepping fully into the role of teacher to concentrate completely on his students. In class, he would not show movement full out, but would mark out an example then expect his students to breathe energy into the full movement and bring it to life. Bruhn taught a barre known for its measured, deliberate thoroughness with special attention given to body placement and line. Instead of sitting back or only speaking, he would move throughout the room from student to student making gentle yet firm corrections. Without showing observable favoritism, he would give extra care with those students whom he found to be especially talented. Erik’s classes on Bournonville style were some of the most popular with students because his deep understanding of the style and straight forward way of demonstrating and explaining made the material more approachable for them. When speaking about his teaching Erik said, “When I teach, I don’t give messages. I am not a Bible. I give students what they need, but what interests me most is the personal relationship between a student and a teacher and that, of course, varies from student to student. I try to reach each one of my students on a level that they can relate to. Sometimes it’s through humor. Sometimes it’s by listening to their problems,” (Gruen 222).
Erik Bruhn’s career took him all over the world exploring more aspects of the art he loves than many get the chance to experience. He has phases of being a student, a danseur noble, a choreographer, an artistic director, a character dancer and a teacher. His young style had amazing elevation that grew into a precision and expressiveness that set him apart from other dancers. Erik’s ability to think through a role and really pour himself in the character was there from the beginning. Each time he performed a role he enhanced it, not just for himself but for others who were to play it in the future. By the end of his career, he had taken on and breathed life into so many roles that he helped transform the way the world saw male dancers and male characters. Around the world, Erik Bruhn became a role model in the dance world. For his home company in Copenhagen, “It was really Erik who gave us a sense of the world’s possibilities for a dancer, far from Denmark. He was our first dancer who achieved a huge international reputation.” wrote Peter Martins (Rockwell).
Some people may ask, why would a man put himself through all that work just for dance? But for Erik, life was dance. “There have been certain moments on the stage where I suddenly had a feeling of completeness. Even disguised as a dancer, I felt like a total being. This has happened perhaps four or five times during my entire dancing career. It was a feel of I AM. At those moments, I had that indescribable sensation of being everywhere and nowhere. I had the sense of being universal….. but not in any specific form. The experience scared me at first, because one could so easily lose oneself. But it was that very same sensation that helped me to pull through during the toughest periods of my life,” (Erik Bruhn: I Am the Same, Only More).
Erik Bruhn was more than just a dancer. He was also a man with a family, lovers and friends. A man, but a complicated one. Erik Belton Evers Bruhn was born in Copenhagen on October 3, 1928. His father was rarely around, and his mother worked as a theatrical hairdresser. He had four sisters and his aunt also lived with them. Growing up, he was not particularly close to his sisters, though he continued to return home and live with his mother while he worked in Copenhagen until she died. He took her death very hard. Later in life, when just he and his sisters were left, the only real tie to his family Erik had was in his sister Benthe, who settled in Canada with her five children. “In a way, Benthe reminds me of our mother. She is a big enormous woman with a strong personality. She is a real person - a human being I love and respect. Whenever I have the need for family life I always visit Benthe” (Gruen 197).
Though a bit antisocial as a child; Erik did have many friends throughout his life. As he grew, he got better at making friends and socializing with the people he worked with. But he was still a very private person. While he had many acquaintances and admirers he had very few true friends. As he grew older, he made more and more friends, yet those who deeply knew him were still limited. A critic, Clive Owns once commented that “One thing about Erik is that with almost all of his friends he is much more important to them than they are to Erik. On the other hand, he has this quality of intensity, so that people who don’t see him very often feel that he offers a very great deal of himself in a very short span of time,” (Gruen 203).
Sonia Arova, who he met in his first trip to London in 1947, was Erik’s first love. They were young and head-over-heels for each other. Yet their romantic relationship always revolved around dance. By the end of the summer together they agreed to get married. Though, after a few years of living apart and continuing to work on their dancing careers, this dream fell through when Erik headed over to America to dance with the American Theater Ballet, (Gruen 46). The engagement lasted over 5 years. In 1954, Arova also came to dance with the American Ballet Theater. This was when they finally ended their relationship because Erik’s life had moved on and Sonia did not want to hold him back, (Gruen 60). While their love had fizzled out, they remained in each other’s lives as dear friends for many years. Bruhn also had an intense relationship with Maria Tallchief, one of his partners. “There is no doubt I was in love with Erik Bruhn. I mean, who could not fall in love with Erik? When you dance with him it is impossible not to. Those blue eyes and the noble Greek-god face! Not only that but he is a great partner, and I do mean great! The trouble is, Erik lets you fall in love with him and then… good-bye! He’s a very elusive man. Erik comes to the brink of things and then, suddenly, everything stops,” (Gruen 101).
When talking about himself, Erik explained that, “I general run when I begin to feel that someone starts getting too possessive. I have loved a lot of people on many different levels. But some people fall in love with me, and when they do, there is nothing which is enough for them. When I feel that happening, I have to get out. There is not a mysterious streak in me, it is simply a matter of survival. It’s possible that I give them everything except the very thing they want, and that is all of me. The fact is, I can only give all of me to the person I want to give all of myself too, (Gruen 97).
One of Erik’s friendships that the world has never quite understood was his relationship with fellow dancer Rudolf Nureyev. They met in the fall of 1961, in Denmark, after Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union. The relationship was complicated but very deep. Like most things in Erik’s life, dance brought them together. (Gruen 108) No other dancer matched Erik in style, ability, build or performance. Rudolf was the competition and inspiration that Erik needed to push himself to become even better. Though Erik is on record saying that, “If we were the same age, I probably couldn’t accept him being around,” (Erik Bruhn: I Am the Same, Only More).
The men’s extraordinary talent and different ways of approaching the art they both loved motivated and pushed both men to new heights. But it is important to remember that they were very different men: Danish Erik with his quiet, calm, put-together appearance and Russian Rudolf with his impulsive, outspoken, volatile character. Sometimes they worked well together; other times their differences caused major problems. The press’s interest in their competitive/supportive odd relationship and the fact that they were, at times, competing for the same roles and company positions added more complications to the friendship. Erik described their friendship as a collision:
“What happens to me is that I collide with things. There is a meeting or collision and it is inevitably momentary. If I try to sustain it as something permanent, it doesn’t work. The initial collision is attractive and exciting, but I have to follow my instincts about it and my instincts invariable guide me in many different directions. Rudik has always claimed that I was an example of freedom and independence- that I would always do exactly what I wanted to do regardless of others- and it may be so. Well in those early years that’s what happened between Rudik and me- a collision and an explosion which could not last…Still, we remain friends and we have continued to go through a great deal together, and on many different levels,” (Gruen 124).
What we cannot deny is that this was the type of friendship that shapes lives. They shared a lot, including the death of Bruhn’s mother after which Nureyev stuck by and supported Erik, and for better or worse the two men helped create who each other became as dancers and individual people. “In thinking back on my friendship with Rudik, I would say that it has been intense, stormy, and at times very very beautiful. I have probably done plenty of things that may hurt or upset him. Well, he has done the same to me. And still we are very close,” (Gruen 224).
Dance just always came first for Erik. In his book titled Erik Bruhn, John Gruen writes, “A perfectionist, Bruhn would give of himself unstintingly, often at the sacrifice of a rich or fulfilling personal life. It was not that he avoided personal relationships or that he did not enjoy close or casual friendships, but the demands of his career left him relatively little time to engage in involvements commensurate with the depth of his art,” (82).
In 1983 Erik Bruhn became the artistic Director for the National Ballet of Canada. He held that post when, on April 1, 1986, he died in Toronto’s General Hospital at the age of 57. He had only been diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks before, (Rockwell). Upon his death, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who has been called the greatest new dancer in the tradition of Erik Bruhn (Gruen 32) was quoted saying “I knew Erik Bruhn as a man always generous of spirit and willing to share without reservation his deep knowledge and unique and invaluable stage experience. He was indisputably one of the greatest dancers we have ever seen, and his dignity and style have been a model to us all, which cannot be replaced,” (Rockwell). The night Erik passed; the Joffery Ballet Company dedicated their opening night performance at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center to his memory.
Erik Bruhn was a man that took the dance world by storm and lived his life his own way, even when others disagreed or misunderstood him. Regardless of the many labels that he has been crowned with, some still feel it is impossible to know and understand the dancer and the man beneath the countless costumes. I am not so sure. He hid, yes, he played many roles. But he also loved and shared himself in ways that people cannot imagine. To end this story of Erik and his marvelous life, I want to leave you with some of his own words.
“People have often casually asked me, ‘How are you? ‘ I usually answer, ‘The same, only more.’ I suppose that’s a form of maturity- a state of being yourself. As I’ve grown old, I’ve developed the ability to let one mask fall after another, in order to expose my true self. For many years I hid myself, both privately as well as on the stage. Perhaps it was because I was afraid to have people say, ‘Is that all you are?’ Earlier on, I tried to give an illusion of myself to others. But as I’ve matured, I’ve tried to gain more confidence so that I can be more myself, rather than just an illusion. Often, I have deceived friends and the public with a façade of reservation and arrogance. It was an image of the great self-sufficient dancer. The fact is, my strongest driving force has been to communicate with others. I have come to realize that to communicate is to share and this has enriched my life,” (Gruen 181-182).
---Byrgesen, Heino. "More Bournonville." History of European Ballet Class. DIS Vestergade 7 Room 41, Copenhagen, Denmark. 15 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
---Erik Bruhn: I Am the Same, Only More. Dir. Lennart Pasborg. Perf. Erik Bruhn. The Danish Film Institute, 2000.
---Gruen, John. Erik Bruhn, Danseur Noble.
: Viking, 1979. Print. New York
---"Music: Danseur Noble." TIME in Partnership with CNN 5 May 1961. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. http://http//www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,872346,00.html.
---Rockwell, John. "“ERIK BRUHN DIES IN
; TOP DANCER OF HIS GENERATION”." New York Times [ TORONTO ] 1986: 6-5. Print. New York City
---"Sir Erik Bruhn." Ballet Encyclopedia. John W. Beales, 4 Sept. 2007. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. http://www.the-ballet.com/bruhn.php.