In October around Halloween time, I like to teach the classic story of “Hansel and Gretel,” or as I like to think of it, “Gretel and Hansel,” since alphabetically it follows, and Gretel is arguably the real hero of the tale.
Including a range of expression and emotional content, beautiful music, natural and supernatural characters, it is rich with possibilities for dance improvisation, choreography, and education.
This story fits in well with witch dances and other spooky themes like ghosts, bats, cats, etc. and can be related to dreaming and courage in “Cinderella” (for which I also have a podcast, video, and blog), the Land of Sweets and Clara/Marie’s bravery in “The Nutcracker” (coming soon!) and tie in music appreciation from the opera and other sources.
I had the pleasure as a young musical theatre performer to perform as Hansel at the Aloha Theatre in Kailua-Kona, HI. We didn’t have many boys in the musical theatre program at that time, so I had the opportunity to play diverse roles, also including Amahl in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and a number of other roles before focusing in on ballet as a teen. This then led me back to the opera in my senior year at NCSA, dancing in the Piedmont Opera’s production of “The Merry Widow,” directed by Dorothy Danner.
As far as I know, there is no “purely” ballet version of “Hansel and Gretel,” but if you know of one, please say so, I would love to see such a production, though the opera is also wonderful!
Hansel & Gretel in Dance Education
Betty Rowen’s book Dance and Grow includes a variety of themes to inspire creative improvisation and storytelling, including the “Cinderella” theme I shared this fall as well as “Hansel and Gretel” and others.
Rowen points out that, “This story is particularly appropriate for developing awareness of mood and quality of movement. It includes happy play, feelings of being lost, surprise, excitement, and fear–all of which can be expressed in movement.”
“Hansel and Gretel” appears as Theme 3 from Dance and Grow, where Rowen suggests these scenes be accompanied by selections from Humperdinck’s famous opera:
“Step 1: Children take partners, becoming Hansel or Gretel. All of them pantomime making brooms, but tiring of work so they stop to play and dance:
Brother, come and dance with me,
Both my hands I offer thee,
Right foot first, left foot then,
Round about and back again.
Action should follow words of the song, turning in a circle on the last line.
Step 2: Children are taken to the woods, where they become lost. Movement improvisation is done to feelings of being lost in the woods, and eventually becoming tired and lying down to sleep (music for “When at night I go to sleep/Fourteen angels watch will keep” can be used).
Step 3: Children awaken and see the candy house. They approach it cautiously.
Step 4: All the children may then move like witches coming out of the candy house, enticing Hansel and Gretel to come in.” (Dance and Grow)
Music for Improvisations & Choreography
For the “Brother, Come and Dance with Me” song and dance from Step/Scene 1, I found an online resource from Mama Lisa’s World, “A place for poems, songs, rhymes, and traditions from around the world for both kids and grown-ups to enjoy!” On the Come and Dance with Me Song with Recording page, Lisa says:
“Here’s a song called ‘Brother Come and Dance with Me’ from a Librivox rendition of Hansel and Gretel. You can replace “brother” with “children” (or a child’s name). This little song and dance can help children learn coordination and how to distinguish left from right.” Distinguishing left and right, directional and body part movements, kids love to swing their partner around or spin on their own.
In Step 2, where the children get lost searching for strawberries or night comes while they are waiting by the fire, music can be used from the Humperdinck opera or tracks that evoke fear and trepidation (let me know if you have favorites for capturing this mood!).
Then as they grow sleepy and curl up in the forest to rest, a version of “When at Night I Go to Sleep” or a lullabye suits the mood. Children like to act out falling asleep and waking, so this is a fun scene for a range of ages.
I also like to include the Sandman and Dew Man characters who help the children sleep and wake as choreographic ideas with older children.
For Step 3, Gretel and Hansel awaken and discover the Witch’s scrumptious house and finally have a good meal. It can be effective to accompany their encounter with the Witch, Rowen’s Step 4, using the opera music or contemporary witchy/Halloween music including tracks from Craig Wingrove such as this one.
In my version of the danced story of Gretel and Hansel, I like to include a concluding Step 5: an end-of-story celebration of being united again with their father or family and/or of the freeing of the trapped-under-a-spell gingerbread children, for which the opera music or Jack Grunsky’s “You’re Never Alone” song is appropriate.
Grunsky’s theme is especially nice for use with young children, emphasizing Gretel & Hansel’s teamwork and companionship, and all those protecting them (also applies to the angels keeping watch, sibling support, even the birds in the forest!). Although they face a very scary situation, they are never alone and are bound to prevail!
Grimm’s Fairytales in German & English
Although in my work me mostly learn to tell stories through dance and movement, children love to learn and repeat famous phrases from fairytales, and the exchange between the Witch and Hansel & Gretel when they begin to feast on her house is a particularly beloved one.
I discovered that the storybook that my grandparents gave me as a child is a faithful English translation of the German original through my recent reading of the original in Mein Buch der Schoensten Maerchen, where the Witch speaks her classic lines upon discovering Gretel and Hansel chowing down on her hause:
“Knusper, knusper, knäuschen,
Wer knuspert an meinem Häuschen?” To which the children reply,
“Der Wind, der Wind, Das himmlische Kind.” (p.70)
The English translation from Hansel and Gretel by The Brothers Grimm/Lisbeth Zwerger goes:
“Nibble, nibble, munch munch.
Who is gnawing on my house?” …
“The wind, the wind,
The heavenly wind.”
In my telling of the story I usually omit the white duck which ferries Gretel and Hansel across a river to go home, but it is another example of supernatural/natural support for the pair (Weisse Ente Mein Buch der Schoensten Maerchen p.74) on their epic adventure.
Themes Hansel & Gretel shares with other Fairytales
It provides cohesion and promotes retention to connect each tale we tell to others the students are familiar with and which will be covered in the course.
Step 1, where Gretel and Hansel are toiling making brooms and then dance together follows the theme of working, then taking a break to dance and dream shared by the early scene in “Cinderella” where she is cleaning and imagines what it would be like to go to the ball and dance with the prince.
Fairytales of course include magical themes, especially good spells and bad curses like those bequeathed by the fairies in “Sleeping Beauty,” the Fairy Godmother’s good (but limited) spell in “Cinderella,” Witches’ curses in “Hansel and Gretel,” “Swan Lake,” and so forth.
Birds and Supernatural Creatures are also common ideas in “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel.” “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Nutcracker” also share houses or entire lands made up of sweet treats and all three have courageous female protagonists.
Imagery for Hansel & Gretel
I like using a variety of images, both linguistic and in the form of pictures, when teaching the “Gretel and Hansel” story, as they help provide different possibilities for visualization and dramatization. For this, I use a couple different books with evocative illustrations, in English and German, as well as a coloring page that I found for free online.
Students appreciate having a memento of telling the tale in their dance class, whether we draw or color a scene at the end of the session or I send it home with them. They may then retell the story to their family members in pictures, words, and movement.
Questions for Reflection
- What is your favorite spooky Halloween tale?
- Have you told the story of Hansel & Gretel? If so, what is your take on it?
- What early storytelling, music, and movement experiences impacted you?
- How will you celebrate Halloween and Autumn this year?
Come visit me at the A Blythe Coach Facebook Page to respond, I truly love hearing from you. Have a spooky and sweet Halloween and Autumn season!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
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A Blythe Coach: ablythecoach.com
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