Choreography for the 200th anniversary of Silent Night
By Helena Froehlich
Words: Joseph Mohr
Music: Franz Gruber
Choreography: Helena Froehlich.
1818 200 years ago on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, in the tiny village of Oberdorf in the Austrian Alps, Father Joseph Mohr, the catholic priest, wrote some Christmas lyrics and gave them to Franz Gruber, the organist, who composed a simple tune for them. The church’s pipe organ was broken and could not be repaired in time, so at the midnight Mass, a tenor, a bass and two guitars performed Silent Night for the very first time. Despite it’s seemingly humble beginnings; Silent Night has grown to be one of the most popular and beloved Christmas Carols throughout the world.
1914 in the fields of World War I, it is said that a German officer, Walter Kirchhoff, a tenor with the Berlin Opera, came out of the trenches and started to sing Silent Night in German and then in English. His voice crisp and clear carried far in the cold night of Christmas Eve. The shooting stopped, gradually troops from all sides crawled out of their trenches into No Man’s Land and joined in singing Christmas carols in all languages. This is remembered as the Christmas Truce.
I was born in Alsace, a region of the world that changed nationality so many times
between German and French. My great-grandparents were born French, my grandparents, German, my parents, French. So when WWI started, although my grandfather was pro-French, he was drafted in the German army, and spent four years in the trenches never moving more then ten feet forward or back! He told us that on Christmas eve, he disarmed hand grenades; with a chalk, wrote on them “Joyeux Noël” and threw them across No Man’s land into the trenches to wish Merry Christmas to the French soldiers. When I was growing up, Alsace was French, and so at church as well as at our family gatherings we sang Christmas Carols both in French and in German, often simultaneously.
2011 UNESCO granted Silent Night the status of cultural heritage.
2014 Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary invited my company CreationDance to
collaborate on a Christmas service, for which I choreographed Silent Night. And since then, we have danced it in several other churches including a Christmas service in Danish at the First Lutheran Church of Waltham. Here is the video link :
2018 The Sacred Dance Guild (SDG), a spiritually diverse, international association, gathered in June to celebrate its 60th anniversary in Connecticut College. The weekend workshop culminated by dancing at a memorial service for one of its members, Karen Annette Josephson. Karen was an ardent member of our Guild and when she passed away, her husband Walt called our president Wendy Morrell and asked if we could come for Karen’s memorial and dance. “It might sound a little strange,” he said, “because it will be June, but could you dance to Silent Night? We loved it so much, especially the line ‘sleep in heavenly peace.’ ” And so we did.
We decided to use only the first verse of Silent Night, repeated in three languages: the soloist sang the first verse in French, then first verse again but in German, and then the whole congregation joined in singing the first verse in English. We had 24 dancers and only 45 minutes to teach them the dance, so I re-choreographed and simplified my original dance. We focused on bringing out the peaceful feelings of the carol and on creating group patterns. I had no one to take the video so I just set up my camera and let it run. Although it is backlit and not sharply focused, I hope you can still get a sense of the dance:
To keep the dance as simple as possible, all the dancers do the same movements in unison for the first verse. Then they repeat this choreography for the second and third verses with slight variations for example: which direction they are facing and how they move into the space to create geometric group patterns. This repetition will make the dance easier to learn and remember, and help the dancers to move in unison and to focus on the group patterns they create together and give to the audience. Here is a step-by-step tutorial video with CreationDance:
On this video we start with the first verse, one musical phrase at the time, as in the table below: first showing the legs, then the upper-body and then the whole body movements. Next, we run through the whole first verse. Then we dance through the whole song with the three verses.
Unlike musical notation, dance notation through history has never been fully able to render choreography because of the complexity of the elements involved: the music and timing, the configuration of the body itself, the shape created by several dancers together, the geometry in space, the dance steps, etc. Nevertheless, I have provided a table below to give you some choreographic guidelines along with the instructional video, and I encourage you to use this dance in your groups and congregations!
The table itself consists of six sections, each devoted to a musical phrase in the first verse. Each section in turn contains five lines of information as follows:
- Image: the images we can hold that can guide the feelings, emotions and quality of movement we express.
- Lyrics: the words of the musical phrase, divided according to meter.
- Counts: dancers will often differ from musicians in the way they count the rhythm, and sometimes differ even from how the music is written, depending on which way of counting is easiest to follow while dancing. For example, in Silent Night the meter is 6/8 (six beats per measure and an eighth note gets a beat). Each phrase will be two measures, 2 x 6/8 = 12 beats: for some phrases I may count that as 1-and-a, 2-and-a, 3-and-a, 4-and-a = 12. But on other lines, I may count it as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, . . . and so on. It all depends on what can help the dancers the most.
- Legs: foot patterns and whether legs are bent or straight.
- Upper-Body: the arm, torso and head movements accompanying the steps. I did not give any specifics for the torso to keep it simple, but please whenever possible think about breathing deeply, and initiating the arms and head movements from your breath.
Table for Choreographic Notation
|on 1||means “on count 1”||R||means “right”|
|x 4||means “repeat for a total of 4 times”||L||means “left”|
|Down||means “on a bent leg (plié)”||Li||means “lift”|
|Up||means “on the toes (relevé)”||Lo||means “lower”|
|Balancé R||means step side Down R on 1, cross L behind Up on 2, Lo Down R on 3|
|Balancé L||means step side Down L on 1, cross R behind Up on 2, Lo Down L on 3|
|Image #1||We are walking quietly in the precious night with a feeling of expanding silence and beautiful natural landscape, for example dancing on a snowy meadow.|
|Lyrics||Si – i – lent night, ho – o – ly night!|
|Counts||1 2 3, 2 2 3, 3 2 3, 4 2 3,|
|Legs||R – L, R – L, R – L, R – L,
(= 4 x: step on R straight leg on 1, step on L bent leg on 3)
|Upper-Body||Li – Lo, Li – Lo, Li – Lo, Li – hold
(= 4 x: with the hands facing the Earth,
|Image #2||We trace the horizon, and as our eyes become accustomed to the nightlight, everything becomes bright, as the Earth reflects the light of the moon and the stars.|
|Lyrics||All is calm, all is bright.|
|Counts||1– and – a, 2– and- a, 3-and-a, 4-and-a|
|Legs||Balancé R, Step L, cross R behind, Stay
(= balancé R on 1-and-a , step side Down L on 2, cross R
|Upper-Body||L arm to R arm, Open L again, turn palms up fingers shimmering, eyes shine and smile
(= starting with arms open and horizontal, L arm sweeps R
|Image #3||We wonder at the mystery of Christmas, the beauty of the mother and the loving child.|
|Lyrics||’Round yon Vir – ir – gin, Moth–er and Child.|
|Counts||1 2 3, 4 5 6, 1 2 3, 4 5 6|
|Legs||R L R L R L Stay
(= paddle turn to the R: Down on R, Up on L on first 1–6,
|Upper-Body||Li arms to diagonal, R hand circles face, L hand drawn in and under R hand
(= with arms open, gradually lift to diagonal on first 1–6,
|Image #4||We are gently swaying baby Jesus in our arms, feeling and sharing his love with the whole congregation.|
|Lyrics||Ho – ly in – fant so ten–der and mild,|
|Counts||1-and-a, 2 – and – a, 3 – and – a, 4– and-a|
|Legs||Balancé L, Balancé R, Step Down L, cross R behind L, Stay
(= balancé L on 1-and-a, balancé R on 2-and-a, step side
|Upper-Body||Head gently tilted to the L, looking and holding the love ball (baby Jesus) at heart level
(= keep arms in place without swaying much, the balancés
|Image #5||We wonder at the sky in heavenly Peace.|
|Lyrics||Sleep – in hea – ven – ly pea – – eace|
|Counts||1 – and – a, 2 – and – a, 3-and-a, 4-and-a|
|Legs||R L Pivot, R L Pivot, R L Pivot, R L Pivot
(= Pivot ¼ turn to R on R Leg on 1, step out L on –and-a,
|Upper-Body||L arm open, Forward to R, Back, Opens again to L side
(= L arm circles very slowly above head, clockwise as seen
|Image #6||We bring each other and the congregation to sleep, trace the horizon, take a sip of air and fall asleep. J|
|Lyrics||Sleep – in hea – ven – ly peace.|
|Counts||1 – and – a, 2 – and – a, 3-and-a, 4-and-a|
|Legs||Weight on L: bend + transfer weight to R, Slightly bend on R with L stretched to side with pointed foot
(= weight is on L foot after fourth pivot; in a smooth motion,
|Upper-Body||Both arms L, sweep horizontally to R, inhale, L hand on R upper arm, and rest you head
(= if you have other dancers close, hover over the dancer on
These individual movements are the same for all dancers on all three verses. What changes with each verse are the group patterns that the dancers follow (that is, the geometry and orientation in space):
Three Group Patterns for each of the three Verses:
References to lines will be as you could see them from the audience point of view: a vertical line will depict a line from downstage (= close to the public) to upstage (= the back of the stage). Some stages used to be slanted so the audience could see what was happening in the back of the stages and some stages still are slanted I danced on slanted stages in le grand théâtre de Bordeaux, (France) and theatre de Rome, (Italy). A horizontal line will depict a line from stage L to stage R.
1st verse: in the aisle(s)
The groups are in the center aisle and moving towards the chancel, if you have two or three aisles (see SDG video), you can divide the dancers accordingly. During the third line of the verse (’Round Yon Virgin), everybody turns and finishes facing the congregation wherever they are. During the fifth line (Sleep in heavenly peace), the dancers come to the chancel area (or stage) and form a horizontal line of two, three or four people. If you have more than four dancers, start a second horizontal line behind the first one. Each of the dancers in the second row should line up directly behind one of the dancers in the front row. If you have more than eight, begin a third horizontal line and keep adding lines until all the dancers are accommodated. In the video of SDG, we had 24 dancers, and so we formed six horizontal lines with four dancers in each line. This resulted in a 4 x 6 formation.
2nd verse: horizontal line(s)
During the first line (Silent night, holy night), the four vertical lines will cross each other horizontally: the two vertical lines on the left glide horizontally to the right while the two vertical lines on the right glide horizontally to the left. Traditionally, stage L crosses in front of stage R, here is a diagram with 8 dancers:
Then continue the dance with dancers staying in their new place.
3rd verse: circle(s)
During the 1st line (Silent night, holy night), have the dancers gradually move so they create one circle facing the center of the circle and they will be turning in a counter-clockwise direction.
Note that if you have many dancers you can create two circles: create the first circle as above with dancers turning in a counter-clock wise directions and create one additional inner circle with dancers facing out and turning in a clockwise direction. So the dancers in the two circles are facing each other and turning in opposite direction. With the 24 SDG dancers we had 8 dancers in the inner circle and 16 in the outer circle.
Versatility for Performance
- Please feel free to adapt the group patterns, depending on your number of dancers and the size and layout of the space you can use for dancing.
- As an option, dancers could hold a (battery powered) candle in their right hands. This can look beautiful for an evening or candlelight performance.
Here are some options for the music:
- As in the tutorial video, you can have a soloist sing the first verse in German, then first verse in French, then the congregation can join in singing the first verse in English. That could recall the beautiful story of the Christmas Truce in 1914, or
- Sing the three verses in English, or
- Have a soloist (or choir) sing all three verses while the congregation hums along, so they can enjoy watching the dance without having to focus on lyrics, or
- Make the music completely instrumental, using various instruments, in solo or ensemble, recorded or live, using the same or different combinations for each iteration of the verse.
Regardless of the chosen format, the tempo should be very slow to bring the feeling of silence and peace.
Silent Night Lyrics in German, French, and English
First verse in German:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
First verse in French:
Douce nuit, Sainte Nuit,
Tout est calme, plus de bruit,
C’est Noël et là-bas dans le ciel,
Une étoile d’un éclat irréel,
C’est l’amour infini!
C’est l’amour infini!
First verse in English:
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Contact Information Helena Froehlich
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions. I am also available to perform with CreationDance or alone, and to teach various workshops in Dance, Choreography, Moving Meditations, Conditioning and Yoga for the Lattice.
The three Moving Meditations videos with the written Guide are available online for $ 15 please contact: Helena Froehlich – email@example.com – cell: 617-818-4138 https://www.facebook.com/CreationDanceCompany