Won't You Join the Dance?

by Trudi Schoop

Artwork by Hedi Schoop

-- An Excerpt --

      Whenever I think back to my childhood, feelings of boundless gratitude and happiness come over me. Ours was a Swiss family, ruled with a non-iron hand by Father, a man respected and appreciated by Zurich's intellectuals, and by Mother, a warm and loving woman with an almost insatiable urge for freedom. My mother recognized no moralistic taboos, followed no conventional rules. She just did what seemed right for her. My father loved her dearly and admired her inner strength and free spirit; it was she who set the liberated climate in our household. A strong and courageous man himself, my father was the editor of a Zurich newspaper and president of the beautiful Dolder Hotels. Such a man should probably have led the decorous life expected of him by the quite bourgeois society of that lovely, ancient city on the Lake of Zurich. But he would not. He loved my unruly mother so much that, rather than try to tame her, he supported her offbeat ways and wishes.

      I remember vividly our dinner table, which was really more like a conference table -- with wild discussions, very much to eat, and so many people that we children often sat on the floor. There were Mother and Father and the four children, each of us usually having brought along at least one friend. Sharing the meal with us were Lisi, our beloved cook with the big bosom and the ever-friendly face, and two young maids from the French part of Switzerland, who spoke only French and were terribly homesick. There were usually some business friends of my father's and at least three or four struggling writers or actors or painters, a young priest from Italy, a communist from Russia, and a baroness from Germany ... all surviving their dark days together in my mother's generous house.

      And I remember the excitement when my father brought some sandals home and announced that he intended to wear them without socks! And I can still see my mother throwing her corset away one day, and recall how she began to wear colorful, loose-fitting clothes and to look with pity at all the ladies with their suffering waistlines. And, of course, all her children had to be colorfully and comfortably dressed, too. I'm sure we looked like the forerunners of a little hippy colony, and that was much for Zurich to swallow. We were probably accepted as the Swiss family that proved to be the exception to the rule!

      There was my brother Max, who was to become a painter, and my brother Paul, who would be a composer-pianist and write the scores for my pantomimes, and my sister Hedi, who would excel as a dancer, actress, ceramist, painter -- and who now, of course, illustrates this book. The four of us lived wildly in our beautiful house on the hills above Zurich. Summer after summer I lived in a tree-house I'd built in one of the huge oaks that dominated our immense garden. I was never asked to sleep "for-heaven's-sake-in-the-house" or in my own bed. My parents were happy to see me whenever I appeared for the family meals, to which I made impressive entrances, looking like one of the gnomes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Only when my food supply ran low did I come down from my tree-house -- or when I, myself, strongly felt the need for a hot bath!

      Those summers were just heavenly. Our home grounds must have looked like a Garden of Eden Annex with our four naked young bodies rolling in the high grass, climbing trees to break fruit from their branches, and followed, wherever we played, by cats and dogs and tame crows and not-so-tame mountain goats.

      School, of course, was a different chapter in our young lives. It was hard for us to adjust to the stern discipline of a dehumanized system and to be shut up in a classroom where children had to sit still, where nobody was interested in how they felt, and where the best scholar was the one who could somehow manage to divorce his head from the rest of his body and thereby facilely count, multiply, solve algebra problems, memorize history and long, boring poetry.

      When I once aired my gripes against the academic life to my mother, she said, "Don't worry. Anything you don't need to know for the life you choose, you will forget the minute you get out of school."

      And that's just what I did -- thoroughly! Perhaps my father was disappointed. I think he would have loved me to be a teacher, as he had been in his youth. Actually he was the last in a long ancestral line of scholars, professors, and instructors that can be traced way back to the time of our beloved and idealistic Pestalozzi, the man who founded a home and school for war orphans when Switzerland was fighting for its freedom.

      At the age of twelve I was firmly resolved to become an actress. While still in school I studied with ingenuous enthusiasm the great dramatic parts of world literature. My drama teacher was delighted with my talent. Up to this day I don't know why, because I didn't understand a single line I spoke, let alone the spiritual content of the dramas.

      One thing I know for sure: the more horror there was, the more heads rolled, the more blood gushed, the more injustice fell upon the innocent, the more satisfaction I derived from my role. For two years I learned without learning, understood without understanding. Then suddenly a change occurred. I wanted to dance. I wanted to express my own ideas and my own feelings through my body and not through words I did not comprehend. I sat up in my tree-house and thought about it very hard. Then, one evening at the dinner table, I stood up and announced that I had come to a very important decision: I was going to be a dancer. The response was overwhelming. Family and friends roared with such laughter that I couldn't continue my carefully planned speech. Finally, my mother came to my rescue.

      "Don't be so ridiculous," she scolded them. "I think it's just wonderful that Trudi knows what she wants. Let's give her a chance to prove it." And she looked long at my father.

      So at the age of sixteen, I tried to create dances. I had had no training; I didn't know how to go about making a dance. But I did make dances. I rented a big room, hired a piano player, had ideas, searched for music, rehearsed and trained according to a do-it-yourself system, designed highly complicated costumes, neglected food and sleep, and was immensely happy despite all the difficulties I was running into.

      If ever there was a time when body and spirit separated, it happened to me at that period of my life. I longed to be wondrously beautiful, ethereal, and harmonious, but my sturdy legs stood crooked, I stumbled over my feet, my body was heavy and its movements contorted with yearning. It was, to put it mildly, a heroic struggle between spirit and matter.

      From the chaos of my ideas and my cumbersome body there gradually emerged more or less discernible shapes of dances. These dances, though childlike, were intended to be deadly serious: A white flower opening to the light of the sun in order to fall asleep in the evening. A crow stalking in the field, polishing its feathers. A sad little girl crying because she is alone. A beautiful lady snakecharmer. And above all, a slave with chained hands rebelling against his fate. This last dance was my pride and joy; it embodied my longing for inner and outer freedom.

      Also, I simply interpreted music, such as Liszt's "Grand Gallope," whose speed I could never keep up with, and Schubert's "Moments Musicales," whose playfulness contrasted grotesquely with my earthbound body. I shortened or arranged classical and modern music to fit my purpose and crudely eliminated whatever I was not able to master, either technically or emotionally.

      And when, about six months later, I gave my first dance recital, it was, believe it or not, a smashing success. The critics raved, my father was proud, and my mother smiled. My triumph was understandable only as a reflection of the mood of the time. When I started to dance, the dancers of Europe (particularly Germany) were just beginning to reach for new contents and forms. Down with ballet, down with sweet loveliness! The best people were against classical form, against tradition, against anything, in any case. The Weisenthal sisters had thrown their ballet slippers into a corner and danced with bare feet. Isadora Duncan preached natural movement, the flowing line. The tutu was replaced by a sort of Greek tunica. Rudolf von Laban began to classify dancers into three categories: high, medium, and low. And he was devoted to what he called Ausdruckstanz (Expression-Dance), which was new and almost frightening. Emile Jacques-Dalcroze tried to integrate completely music and movement. Mary Wigman danced without music. She believed in dance as an independent art that could speak for itself. Valeska Gert, on the other hand, accompanied her dances with words and yells. In her chalk-white makeup she looked like a poster by Toulouse Lautrec.

      All this was exciting, new, oppositional. Everywhere things were on the move. Everybody tried to be original, daring. In the beginnings of modern dance, opposition against tradition was of the essence. Representative technique had not yet been developed. Anyone who thought he had something to say, and who possessed two legs, danced. The theatres were swamped with dance recitals. Names by the hundreds flared up in the stage firmament and faded away. One stamped and screamed on stage, one mimicked madness with a flower in hand. One danced morphine in a long purple gown and a pale green face. One danced vice itself with a long cigarette holder. On red couches, rapes and murders were committed in dance. All this was expressed in crude movements, and often without any effort to be understood. The leaps ended with a thud; the stages thundered under the impact of falling bodies. The corps de ballet was replaced by the Bewegungschore (movement choir). Janitors, housewives, secretaries, clerks, policemen, and physicians streamed into these groups and expressed their joint feelings in joint movements. Soon opera was using the Bewegungschore for big mass scenes, preferably the ones playing in hell, where devils of both sexes jumped horrifyingly about. It was very strange. When I came to Germany from Switzerland I gained the impression that all the Germans were dancing.

      It was at this time that I began to train seriously for the dance. I had proved to myself and my environment that I wanted to be a dancer; now I had to turn my body into a capable instrument, choosing ballet for my technical training. Simultaneously, I attended the school of Ellen Tells, a disciple of Isadora Duncan. She taught the expression of pure and nobly flowing movements. Lacking easy grace, I suffered from my leadenness, and the inexorable rigidity of ballet was bodily punishment for me.

      During this period of study, I toured Germany and Switzerland. I danced in sold-out theatres with great, very great success. The audience went wild with enthusiasm and the critics sang my praises. Why, then, was it that such response impressed me so little? I had outgrown my childhood dances. Now I had to find a way to express the "current me."

      It was at this time that, suddenly and unexpectedly, my father died. His death shook me to the roots of my being. My world had always depended on him for moral support, now I was determined to be self-reliant. I decided to open a school for "artistic dancing." The city of Zurich gave me one of the most beautiful small old churches to use as a dance studio. There was just one string attached: I had to wind the steeple clock to keep the neighborhood informed of the time! ... The time often stood still, but not the telephone, which jangled with calls from infuriated citizens.

      During this hiatus I worked with many, many pupils and became acquainted with a new aspect of life. Teaching so fascinated me that I became completely immersed in my new task, placing my choreographic development in the background for the time being. The hours I spent watching the movements of my pupils were periods of intense reverence. The pupils seemed to be approaching creation, as movement developed from movement, as they strove for form, for choreographic expression of an idea. But at the same time I began to realize how difficult it was for them to express their fantasies, to "move their imaginations." Personal affectations, feelings of inferiority and anxiety, conflicts of all sorts hemmed in their bodies and cramped their actions. I had begun to see people in a new light.

      On the streets I followed strangers, imitating their gait and posture, and imagined, by taking in their manner of movement, that I was able to feel their state of mind. Suddenly I was obsessed with human gestures, with the play of features, with attitude and countenance, with the sparkling variety of man's presence.

      I was fascinated by the way a face distorted in anger, by the way someone cried, by the way someone lustily slapped his thighs. A lady checking her coiffure in the mirror, a man looking for a cuff link, a waiter waiting for a tip, a businessman talking his client into a deal -- all such commonplace scenes captivated me and made me aware of the colorful eloquence of everyday life.

      Again I worked on dances. This time they were different. I tried to stylize the little stories I had observed, and at the same time give them a broader, more general application. I wanted to do this, not by acting, but by telling my stories with my body, by dancing them. They had to be short, and so precise that it was next to impossible to find the right music for them. But one day, my brother Paul sat down with me and began to translate my ideas into musical sequences. I had found my composer!

      The new dances were entitled: You Interest Me, Business Is Business, It Was Only a Pain, Nothing More, I Like Myself, The Big NO!, The Art of Free Speech. And the first time I made my appearance with this program, I had the shock of my life. The audience laughed! That had never happened to me before. I had composed those dances with utmost seriousness. Not for a minute had I intended to be funny. But that night I learned from the audience that I was a "comic" dancer.

      In the late twenties I found myself in Berlin, performing in a little avant-garde cabaret, Die Katakombe. Here, I joined a group of several young actors, musicians, and a writer, all of whom wanted a political stage. The oncoming nightmare of another war could already be felt in the air. We had a target for our criticism. We made fun of the self-satisfied bourgeoisie, and satirized the arrogance of the emerging "Master Race." Whatever we did was young, blunt, and terribly cocky. But there was nothing chaotic or indecipherable about our statements, as there had been when the artistic revolution first began. We wanted to formulate clearly. We wanted to be unmistakably understood. Together, we found a daring form to present a daring content. The little political show triumphed and, for the first time, I felt that my personal success was deserved. I had applied my talent to serve a cause and found out that dance can be an incisive weapon.

      While I worked with this group, I was still performing as a soloist. If I wanted a partner, I had to address myself to an imaginary one. I remember dancing Promenade with a Friend and wishing that my invisible listener were real. More and more, I wanted a dialogical situation. I wanted to people the stage with other characters so that together we could show how man deals with man: How do people love, hate, dupe each other? How do they play together? What do they gossip about? Rejoice in? Grieve over?

      I was absorbed in such reflections when I was invited to participate in the International Dance Congress in Paris. I accepted, and formed a group with my best pupils. Though they were non-professionals, each one was talented and each one eager. I already had a pantomime in mind in which dancing and acting would be integrated. It was the dance-comedy Fridolin. As Fridolin, I played a naive youngster, full of dreams, who could not adjust to his narrow, materialistic world. Somehow this awkward, comical figure represented my own conflict with society as I saw it. I was one of the prize-winners at the Paris congress. The critics went overboard in their praise. I can still recall the thrill of standing in the lobby the next morning, reading their reviews. "The elementary art of dance receives new meaning; first in The Green Table by Kurt Joos: the peace message against war, then with Trudi Schoop: the message of humanity in our time. Here the pathos of Joos, there the mocking aggressiveness of Trudi Schoop."

      I had found my way -- and very soon after, a husband! And until this day, I believe that he fell as much in love with my talent as he did with my person. He certainly helped me in every way possible to realize my professional dreams. With his assistance, I was now able to assemble a group of professional dancers. It was a motley company, as different as can be imagined in character, appearance, technique, and nationality. I engaged acrobats with no dance training, musical comedy performers, ballet girls, and specialty dancers. It wasn't easy to weld that heterogeneous group into a performing unit. The dancers didn't want to act, the actors didn't want to dance, the acrobats insisted on standing on their heads all the time, the modern dancers hated the ballet people, and the ballet people sneered at modern dance. And all of them distrusted my new ideas of comical pantomime. But at last they came around, each one's individual expression making a vital contribution to the whole.

      My dreams about the group had come true. Many programs came into being in the course of the years: Fridolin en Route and Fridolin at Home, Want Ads, Ringelreihen, Blonde Marie, In the Name of Love, Barbara. All the pantomimes were humorous statements about man's imperfections. Though they ridiculed, they were somehow affectionately tolerant. Each program was a full feature -- one comedy in two or three acts -- and most of the productions were made in musical collaboration with my brother Paul.

      For several gratifying years I travelled all over the world with my group of twenty dancers and two pianists. And I'll never forget our whispered, backstage excitement one opening night in Prague, when we learned that the great Sol Hurok was in the audience. What a celebration followed his offer to book us for a tour in America! And, once across the Atlantic, we really covered territory: up and down and across this huge land we travelled, principally by bus. I think we played every major city. Little did I know, when we performed in Los Angeles, that I'd someday be a confirmed California resident.

      We were in the mid-Atlantic, after our fifth American visit, when the war broke out. My group disbanded, each member hurrying to return to his own country. Hedi had long ago fled to America with her husband, Friederich Hollaender, and my mother and brothers had already joined her there.

      Switzerland was like the eye of a hurricane, surrounded on all sides by the raging war-storm. I involved myself in Red Cross work, helping to care for the trainloads of mutilated soldiers that passed through our neutral land. At the Pestalozzidorf, I worked and played and danced with the little orphans who had somehow made their way out of the holocaust and into that idyllic refuge.

      Eventually I joined another political cabaret. What the Katakombe had been for Germany fifteen years before, the Cornichon was now for Switzerland. Through the Cornichon, Switzerland could air its distress about Hitler's Germany, and we, the Cornichon, could criticize our own government for its indifference to the plight of our neighbor-countries and for its inconsiderate treatment of the refugees who crossed our borders. In spite of our open accusations, the government stood steadfastly beside us. The Swiss censor often let us know in advance when the German consul or press attache was going to visit the cabaret. We could then alter our own material accordingly. It was a fearfully exciting time, a time of never knowing what we could say and what we could not -- or even if we'd be able to perform at all. Gradually we constructed a secret vocabulary, a kind of sign language, that defied censorship. The Germans could hardly report, "Trudi Schoop draped her fingers over her brow. We feel that she was making fun of Hitler's forelock!" Our cast included singers, writers, painters, dancers -- each tops in his own field, and all united in a keen effort to fight with our art for our beliefs. Throughout this horrible period, when the bombers flew nightly over darkened Zurich, we sang, played, and danced our political messages to packed houses.

      As the Germans marched relentlessly through Europe, my wishful fantasy led me to dance Hitler as "The Dying Swan." A black tutu suggested the uniform of the SS and my face was adorned with a mustache like the Fuhrer's. The last movements of my expiring swan were a series of frenzied salutes: the "wing" was stiffly raised over and over again until this macabre bird fell dead! I performed that satire only once. The German consul was outraged and my own government decidedly nervous.

      At length, the terrible war drew to a close. The Cornichon had served its purpose. There was another tour with my group through Europe and America. I was still in the United States when word came that my husband had died. ...

      There followed a period of emptiness. I was tired of moving about the world. I longed for roots -- and they grew fast and deep in the warm earth under California's temperate sky. And, like any good tree, I fell in love with the sun, the soft air, the faraway naked mountains, the strange little animals and birds that visited me, and all the foreign flowers that I was so happy to meet! I painted a little, taught a bit, danced with a blind girl and with deaf children. It was a peaceful time. But soon, my revitalized energies sought a new outlet. ...

      It was a beautiful morning for driving up the valley to the state hospital. The mustard was in full bloom that day, wrapping the soft, rounded hills in golds of every hue, under a sky that stretched silky-blue from horizon to horizon. How I love this sun-drunken country where the ocean's fluid rhythm seems to extend into the landscape. My car roller-coasted smoothly up and down the earth-waves, passing sleek horses and wide-eyed cattle wandering through pastures splashed with blue lupine.

      My body shifted slightly, telling me that I'd been sitting in one frozen position ever since I'd left home: hands clutching the steering wheel like a vise, shoulders hiked up, neck so stiff that it crackled when I moved it. Why all this tension? What's the matter with me anyway? ... I know, I know, ... it's that letter, lying open on the seat beside me. How ridiculous to be so scared of it! Nobody forced me into this situation; I asked for that letter. I wrote them first. I wanted to work with their patients. Of course, I could call the whole thing off ... I could play sick ... or say that I have to go suddenly back to Switzerland ... I can turn around right now!

      A road sign appeared over the next rise: NO U TURN. Oh well, the doctors just want to talk to me; that's their right. It's really a very nice letter. "... Thank you for offering your services. ... Dance Therapy sounds interesting ... would like to hear more about your method ... meet with us Wednesday, 10 A.M." And here it is Wednesday, 9:30 A.M. I'd better hurry up. If my hands would only stop that "stage-fright itching"! Why didn't I apply at a nice, small, private hospital? Any kind of state institution scares me. They're all so impersonal, so academic! But in a hospital this size, there's sure to be a greater variety of patients. How vividly I remember Professor Bleuler's patients in Zurich when, many years ago, he asked me to perform for them. How black and white were their expressions -- without any shading -- only angry, only fearful, only. ... My heart quickened in anticipation. Would the patients be the same in this country, in this hospital? And what would I do with them if they were? I didn't know. Any ideas I did have were still in a dream stage. The doctors certainly don't need my dreams; they need facts, results, and, right now, a description of my method. Can I ever admit my hope to learn from the patients themselves as I seek to establish a clear-cut working method? All I know is that somehow I want to dance with them. Dance? In a hospital? With psychotic patients? At this point, the idea seems absurd even to me. But why, I wonder? Does the word "dance" still connote exhibitionism, narcissism, depravity? Is dancing just too pleasurable to be taken seriously, too unscientific to be considered therapeutic?

      My apprehension accelerated with the speedometer. Why do I put myself through this ordeal? Why is it so vitally imperative for me to become involved with people who are mentally ill? I thought again of Bleuler's patients, saw their unusual mannerisms, their weird actions, heard their strange speech patterns. What wouldn't I give to be able to understand what they're thinking, feeling, saying! So that was it, then. My infatuation with human expression had brought me to this time, this meeting, this adventure. The world was just waiting for me to decipher the enigmatic expression of schizophrenia. Why do I have to be so expression-crazy?

      I was awakened from the anxiety of reality by a dream of scent, a fantasy of perfume. Fields of stock, the flower of my childhood garden, fat, delicate, rainbow-colored stock, spread out before my enchanted eyes. Swelling, falling, overturning they radiated iridescent hues far and wide, fusing the heavens with the earth. Enraptured, I was carried away on a cloud of delight, which deposited me gently in front of the hospital. ADMINISTRATION, the sign said. I entered.

      With the expiring hiss of a punctured balloon, the door closed itself behind me. I found myself in a darkish, colorless reception room. The air reeked of disinfectants which failed to cover up what they should have covered up! Behind the information desk, a stiff-backed woman talked on the phone in a clipped, efficient tone.

      "Yes, doctor, I'll send her up when she ...."

      Glancing over, she saw me standing respectfully a few feet away.

      "Miss Schoop?" she asked, with the severity of Fraulein Bachtold, my seventh-grade teacher.

      I nodded, feeling somehow guilty.

      "She's just come in, Doctor Keermuschel. ... Yes, sir, right away."

      When the receiver had been neatly replaced, her curious eyes behind thick-lensed glasses gave me a quick up-and-down look of appraisal. The verdict seemed to be "how very odd!"

      She spewed out directions in a steady stream: "Your meeting is in the conference room, up-the-stairs-second-floor-first-right-third-left-a round-the-corner-other-side-of-a-blood-bank-laboratory-the-fourth-door-with-no-handle."

      "Thank-you-very-much," my voice said as my mind struggled to cope with the floor plan.

      As I climbed the stairs, my heartbeat hammered in my throat, tripling the tempo of my steps. What will I say? How will I say it? I'll never be able to explain in English what I want to do. Don't fool yourself -- you can't even explain it in Swiss!

      I reached the second floor and took the first right.

      Oh God, and what will I ever do without "okay"? My sister just said yesterday that the way I used "okay" showed a low grade of education. I could not use it with the doctors. Unfortunately, it was the one, single word I could say with confidence ... in front of a sentence, in the middle of a sentence, and at the end. Besides, it was my delaying device; it gave me time to think. And it could mean just about anything! What a shame that this wonderful term, the only one I could pronounce decently in American English, was out.

      I found myself in a dead-end corridor and retraced my steps for a new start. How in the world will I ever talk to them? Maybe it will be okay if I say, "I believe in the body as a partner of the mind. I would like to make your patients feel better and I think I could do it with movements. I would work for a body that likes to express itself very strong, very throofully ... throughfully? ... troofully?" As I wondered how the real Americans would spell this difficult word, I passed the blood bank and found the fourth door. She was right. It had no handle!

      I took a deep breath and summoned my life-long defense against authority. A "charming, ingenuous child" knocked at the door. It opened to admit me ... Dr. Keermuschel, Hospital Director, very courteous, very blue-eyed.

      Three minutes later, the dreaded interview was over. But within that tiny fraction of time, the coin of my life flipped over. Dazedly, I remembered Dr. Keermuschel introducing me to a cluster of disinterested faces.

      "My colleagues," he said, gesturing courteously toward six men who for 180 seconds managed to remain mute.

      Then came The Question: "Well, Miss Schoop. What can you do for us? We'd like to know something about your method, how you go about it, and what makes you think it would work. Just what do you plan to do with the patients?

      Words came out of my mouth heedlessly, earnestly: "Okay. I would like to dance with your patients, okay?"

      Utter silence. The doctor's gaze -- a blue laser beam searching my soul ...

      "OKAY!" With this one glorious word he made me a dance therapist.

Artwork by Hedi Schoop

Won't You Join the Dance? by Trudi Schoop (1904-1999). Illustrations by Hedi Schoop (Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1974)

Further Reading:


When I come and look
At the ancient Capital
Of the God of Iso,
The flowers are in bloom
That once served for garlands.


Shin Kokin 88, trans. by Arthur Waley, "Japanese Poetry: The Uta", 1919