Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

As Though the Mind were a Schoolmaster

For my research on a chapter of Charlotte Selver's life in the 1930s I re-read a talk her teacher, Elsa Gindler, gave at the annual convention of the "German Gymnastic Association" (DGB) in Munich in 1931. Charlotte attended the conference too and wrote enthusiastically about it to her husband Heinrich:

“Last night was the event of the convention: Gindler spoke. Her talk will be decisive for everybody. Her time has come. People had tears in their eyes and everybody felt: Gindler is the one. She was daring, questioned everything and then reconciled everything with love and kindness. She didn’t avoid any issues [...] and, most importantly, she offered a path. Hinrich Medau [a leading figure in the gymnastic-movement] agrees: You are right, Gindler is the future."

The catastrophic events which began to unfold two years later with the ascent to power of Hitler's National Socialist Peoples Party all but thwarted such expectations. Gindler retreated from public visibility to continue her work in small but profound ways, while Medau would soon see his star rise. Nor did Charlotte have a future in Germany. In 1935 she was forced to close her studio in Leipzig and she moved to Berlin where, having no opportunity to teach, she intensified her studies with Elsa Gindler before fleeing the Nazi terror in 1938.

Hopes for a better future were still high in 1931 among gymnastic enthusiasts. In a push distinguish their broader pedagogical aims from physical education on the one hand and performance/dance on the other Gindler, together with the DGB's chairman, Franz Hilker, spearheaded its move toward what we today might call a holistic definition of Gymnastik. Charlotte’s students often heard her plea not to "exercise" but to “find out what wants to happen”. The DGB had arrived at a definition of Gymnastik as a “comprehensive educational and pedagogical method based on personal choice and individually experienced facts”. Accordingly, Gindler emphasized in her lecture an approach that was aimed at “the acute problems of daily life” through the study of the body and of movement. “At the heart of our work is not the human body but the human being”, she explained. “The person as a whole in all of her relationships – to her body, to her life, and to her environment."

"Up to now we have only recognized a fraction of the potential of our organism,
we have rarely used it but almost always misused it.”

Here are just a few excerpts from Gindler's remarkable speech which is arguably as relevant today as it was eighty-five years ago. A complete final draft was published in two German publications listed below.

"We keep forgetting the person in her completeness who is herself only part of a social organism. A person cannot be treated as an isolated ‘body’ or ‘individual’. If we do this the result will be people who are disconnected from their wholeness as a body-mind organism."

"People are used to being told how to do exercises and, after much training, they are able to emulate what they have been shown. They treat their ‘bodies’ like a commodity which needs to be educated by reason or – to sound more ‘sophisticated’: by the ‘mind’ – as if mind were a schoolmaster who knows better. The result of such a mechanistic approach are people who are moved from without and not from within."

“When someone has successfully exercised away their belly fat, when someone seems to be more nimble and has mastered postures, when someone manages to sit upright as long as they think about it, we consider that a success and we are proud of it. But,” Gindler asked, “what has really changed? Are those people really in touch with their organism, are they more comfortable in it, are they better prepared for life?”

“It would be neat to demonstrate the depth of understanding a psychotherapist could reach in his work by discovering his own body based on our findings. We experience every day in our work on uncovering and releasing body and movement disorders in adults how profoundly transgressions and omissions in the infant’s psyche shape its physical character, its posture, its gate, its manner of speech and the way it moves.”    

Translation of these passages by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt.
The lecture is published in the following German publications:
- Ludwig, Sophie: Elsa Gindler - von ihrem Leben und Wirken; Hans Christians Verlag, Hamburg 2002.
- von Arps-Aubert, Edith: Das Arbeitskonzept von Elsa Gindler; Verlag Dr. Kova?, Hamburg 2010.


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
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