Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver


It Really Doesn’t Matter What Happens, But How We Respond“

An abridged excerpt from the chapter on Charlotte Selver’s last three years in Germany.*

By Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

Some context for this excerpt: In 1935, due to the persecution of Jews, Charlotte Selver was forced to abandon her school in Leipzig and move to Berlin, where her husband, Heinrich, headed a private Jewish school. Lotte Mann, like Charlotte a student of Elsa Gindler, took over Charlotte’s studio. With her professional life in shambles and her marriage falling apart, Charlotte was devastated. A letter exchange between her, Lotte Mann, and their student Agnes Ohler ensued, affording us with a rare glimpse into the formation of the practice we now call Sensory Awareness.

To one of Charlotte’s first letters, Agnes Ohler responded: “Please don’t despair. Don’t write that you are wallowing on the ground in agony. No, a warrior – and we are all warriors – cannot let herself go like that. She can only recognize what response is called for. Your greatness is in teaching, not in housekeeping, not in a subordinate job – not even in your husband’s school!”

"A warrior – and we are all warriors – cannot let herself go like that.
She can only recognize what response is called for."

Agnes Ohler was one of a handful of students from Leipzig with whom Charlotte stayed in touch after she left. Students of Charlotte will recognize in Ohler’s responses to Charlotte her own admonishments to pupils decades later. “It really doesn’t matter what happens, but how we respond. Hardship can bring forth the best in us! Just like you were a role model in Gymnastik you can be a role model and support in these struggles. Nothing is harmonious in this world. We have to be ready to carry our cross, then it won’t be a burden.” A pious Christian, Ohler also had some advice for the reluctant Jew. “Don’t shrug off your religion and your race. It is nonsense to resist one’s heritage. Whether Moslem or Buddhist, Jew or Christian, it’s all the same, and we all have to live according to our kind. Maybe you don’t know your religion enough, but I’m sure it has its beauty and its solace.” She also assured her that “Germany, will surely not expel you. You just have to be patient.”

Lotte Mann had already started to sub for Charlotte before Charlotte left Leipzig. In this time of transition, the expectation was, apparently, that Mann work just like Charlotte, which led to some friction between the two.

In a letter to Charlotte, Mann wrote: “My understanding of the work differs from yours. This became clear to me recently in the breath course. I still see myself as a Gymnastik-teacher, and as that it is my job to help the students physically. I don’t feel capable of intervening in people’s personal processes. That said, I am of course aware that we reach people in their totality even when we work with them ‘physically’. I can’t say it any better right now but we urgently need to talk about the work in person. I’m afraid that I am creating a conflict in your students if we don’t. I have tried to adapt to your style but I feel increasingly restricted and I want to go back to my way. I have always felt that it is not possible in our profession to have others work for us in our ways. What we can’t do ourselves we have to let go of. The only possible way would be to work on a level playing field, professionally as well as economically.” Charlotte seemed to have been very hurt by these letters but their heated exchanges came to a friendly end when Charlotte decided to leave Leipzig for good and after they found a mutually agreeable solution for Lotte Mann’s takeover of the school.

Some of her students stayed on to work with Lotte Mann and another unnamed teacher. In her letters to Charlotte, Agnes Ohler reported in some detail how their work unfolded without her. Just as it will have been with Charlotte, the students took different courses that together built a whole. Ohler writes about lessons in Basics, Movement, and Breath. In the Basics lesson they worked on things like “drawing letters and words in the air with our feet, or sometimes on a piece of paper with a pencil between our toes. Now we are thoroughly working our necks. We discover how it protrudes from the body, how we are built there. One person sits and another places one hand on the forehead, the other hand at the base of the skull in the back, and she pulls the head upwards (we did that with you lying down). The effect is fabulous! In the movement lesson one person lies on the floor belly down, the other lyes down with her back on the back of the first. Now the first person tries to get up. Or one person plays horsey while the other rides on her back. We also practice walking in a circle, tuning completely into the pace of the others as we go from walking to running and then back to walking and finally to standing. In the breathing lesson we recently sat around a bowl of water with Olbas oil. We were asked to let the vapors act on our respiratory system.”

“We sometimes also work while the others watch. One of us will be blindfolded and she now has to report any changes that she becomes aware of. That is really effective because you cannot doze off, which is what we too often love to do. This really helps us to make progress while before we were often not quite there for it when we worked on our own. It is interesting for those watching too, because the eye can perceive what we didn’t feel when left on our own. Lotte Mann explained why it is so crucial to share our experience. It helps her to understand where we are in the process, whether we might need more tapping, or if it is time to move on to a new task. It has become easier for us to share, a sign that we are now more able to name what we apparently couldn’t before, which you often lamented.”

Lotte Mann, for her part, shared with Charlotte some of her difficulties with Agnes Ohler: “The work is going well but the breath course is on a precipice. Well, really only Mrs. O. She claims again that she always feels the same things and doesn’t make any progress. Now I let them work and report individually. I hope that this will help us to find out what’s off in Mrs. O’s work. It sometimes seems to me that ‘ideas’ take a hold of her head, which prevent her from being open for what is happening within and around her. It really makes it hard to communicate. But such challenges are ultimately what it’s all about, and they are usually followed by progress.”

“Lotte Mann speaks in very simply terms and she often criticizes our complicated ways,” writes Agnes Ohler.“But we continue to work diligently and we are full of joy. Is it the work? We are so fortunate to always have teachers who are so natural and decent with us. Lotte Mann, too, is so completely in her work and so focussed when she works with us. We old students have grown even closer. Sometimes have heated discussions about who it is “nicer to work with.” Stop. You will not accept “nicer”, let me be more precise. Where did we work more!? In the end we agreed that the result is the same with both teachers. It is equally fruitful and interesting, as different as their approach is, the success is the same!”

This glimpse into their meticulous process is complemented by occasional apologies from Agnes Ohler about the “clumsiness of the reporting and the sloppiness of the style” of her letters. These seemingly negligible remarks point to the weight that was given to any manner of expression, be it a simple gesture or jumping, breathing or singing, speech or writing. How we do what we do likely became the fulcrum on which the work still pivots when Heinrich Jacoby began to collaborate with Gindler in 1924. His experience as a music educator with the the labored performances of his pupils sparked a lifelong passion to exploring the roots of “ungiftedness” which, he was convinced, was not nature given but had its causes in a person’s upbringing and in misguided education. This led to his search, together with his students, for “zweckmässiges Verhalten” – suited conduct. While the pursuit of this was undoubtedly a liberating experience for many students, it sometimes led to just just the opposite, such as in this case when Agnes Ohler not only felt the need to apologize for her less than “suited” writing but also told her that one reason some students didn’t stay in touch with Charlotte was because they didn’t dare to write for fear that their letters might not be impeccable, just like their reports hadn’t been.

For Charlotte, the high bar set by Jacoby – and undoubtedly herself too – led to the complete abandonment of her beloved piano playing after an incident which seems impossible to place in time but was often recounted by Charlotte as a formative, and traumatic, experience in her life. “We worked on improvisation and Jacoby asked us to come forward to play the piano. Everybody else was very timid but I thought, ‘What’s the big deal, I love improvising. I hope he’ll ask me.’ I had loved improvising since childhood, and it had been a big part of my work as a Bode Gymnastik teacher. When Jacoby did ask me I went to the piano and hit the keys. After I finished, Jacoby asked with that devilish smile he sometimes displayed: ‘So, you just improvised, Charlotte Selver?’ ‘Yes’ I responded and he, ‘Would you please play again, but this time listen!’ I started playing again but after a short while I abruptly stopped. What I had just heard was Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, all the composers I had once played. I jumped up and yelled: ‘But that’s impossible!’ I never touched a piano again after that. Jacoby will have expected that I now work on improvisation but I just couldn’t do it. The thought of going through the same painful process of shedding my habits I had undergone with Gindler in movement was just too much to bare.”

*As with all excerpts I share from the manuscript of my Biography of Charlotte Selver, it is not in its edited final form and may contain grammatical and spelling errors.

Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
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