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Gell, Heather Doris (1896–1988)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Heather Doris Gell (1896-1988), kindergarten teacher, eurhythmics pioneer and broadcaster, was born on 19 May 1896 at Glenelg, Adelaide, eldest of three children of English-born parents Harry Dickson Gell, accountant, and his second wife Annie Elizabeth, née Webster. From early childhood Heather swam, she said, `like a fish’ and delighted in physical movement. Educated at Caroline Jacob’s Tormore House School, she played cricket and in 1914 was selected for the State women’s hockey team. As a student at Adelaide Kindergarten Training College in 1915-16, she was inspired by the short eurhythmics course conducted by Agnes Sterry. This new branch of music education—devised by a Swiss, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze—involved listening and moving, and was little known in Australia. Having graduated with the kindergarten teaching certificate, in 1918 Gell was appointed director of Clayton Congregational Kindergarten, Norwood. Although not officially qualified, she also taught eurhythmics at the training college. She had piano lessons from Miss Sterry and studiously observed her Saturday children’s lessons in aural training and eurhythmics.

Deciding to make eurhythmics her career, Gell undertook the three-year certificate course (1921-23) at the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics. In Geneva, Switzerland, she saw a spectacular Dalcroze eurhythmics display; it was to be a model for her many presentations. Back in Adelaide in 1924 as a qualified instructor, she popularised eurhythmics, teaching in her own city studio, in private schools and at the kindergarten training college. Young women and children of all ages, barefoot and simply clad (the children in blue bathing costumes), responded to her skilful piano improvisation with rhythmic, creative body movements designed to develop aural awareness and musical understanding. She was definite, critical and sometimes peremptory, stretching older students to the limit, but was remembered as `wonderful with children’. Although some adults found her formidable, many warmed to her dedication and sense of humour. Although unprepossessing in appearance, being plump and somewhat ungainly looking, she was remarkably light on her feet.

The Dalcroze Society of South Australia, founded by Gell in 1924 and presided over by Harold Davies, arranged and presented eurhythmics performances. Gell confidently joined Adelaide’s theatre scene and her productions, often in aid of children’s causes, captivated audiences. In 1936, sponsored by the Women’s Centenary Council of South Australia, she staged Heritage: A Pageant of South Australia, written by Ellinor Walker. Performed for ten nights at the Tivoli Theatre, it combined the talents of South Australian composers, musicians, singers, actors and eurhythmics students. Gell’s youngest pupils appeared as gumnuts.

In 1931 Gell gained the licentiate in aural training from the Royal Academy of Music, London. Appointed a part-time teacher at the Elder [q.v.4] Conservatorium of Music in December 1934, she prepared the musical perception syllabus for the teachers’ licentiate of the Australian Music Examinations Board; it was adopted in 1935. Returning to London in 1937, she studied stage direction and prepared Dalcroze eurhythmics students for examination. She was impressed by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s program `Music and Movement’ and received some training in radio broadcasting. In Adelaide from mid-1938 she created and conducted Australia’s first music for schools program, `Music through Movement’, an adapted form of Dalcroze eurhythmics, for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. From the start children responded eagerly. When it became national in February 1939, she moved to Sydney. Besides starting eurhythmics classes, for twenty years she created and presented two 20-minute programs per week, each for different ages. Clement Semmler, an ABC manager, regarded `Music through Movement’ as `a gem in the crown of ABC educational broadcasting’.

Early in the 1940s Gell also broadcast a music appreciation program for older children, `Let’s All Listen’. Appointed in 1943 to the first advisory committee for the ABC’s `Kindergarten of the Air’, she trained the program’s presenter and was its first pianist. Each Christmas she presented a dramatic production; in 1945 it was The Pied Piper of Hamelin at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, with (Sir) Charles Mackerras as conductor of the orchestra. Her interpretive book Music, Movement, and the Young Child (1949) encouraged teachers to `look for a delight in discovering originality’ instead of turning children into `little metronomes’. Reissued five times until 1978, it was translated into Japanese in 1958.

In 1951-53 Gell took a three-year course in England, which, with visits to Geneva, qualified her to train Dalcroze eurhythmics teachers. She produced The Pied Piper in London in 1953, again with Mackerras conducting. In Sydney her assistants maintained her thriving city and suburban eurhythmics classes until her return and her radio programs, recorded at the BBC, continued. Back in Sydney, armed with the diploma of L’Institut Jaques-Dalcroze and using her own funds, she founded and directed the Australian Dalcroze School of Music and Movement; the first teachers graduated in 1957. She taught at the Nursery School Teachers’ College, Sydney, for some years, and briefly at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music.

Gell tried with little success to have Dalcroze methods accepted in music education courses. Turning to the new world of children’s television, in 1960 she devised and presented the popular pre-school program `Playroom’ on ADS-7, Adelaide, using bush animal puppets. With habitual thoroughness she planned every detail of her scripts and scores and sent them to her Adelaide colleagues, then every three weeks arrived for one day’s production of three programs. From 1963 videotaping enabled the program to be transmitted to Sydney and Melbourne. Later she presented it for seven years from TCN-9, Sydney.

In 1965 Gell joined centenary celebrations of Jaques-Dalcroze’s birth in Geneva, where a film of her work with children was acclaimed. In London she investigated children’s television, and while in Tokyo for a music education conference taught eurhythmics to children for a week. The foremost Dalcroze authority in Australia, in 1970 Gell founded the Dalcroze Society of Australia and the Dalcroze Teachers’ Society. In 1977 she was appointed MBE. She moved back to Adelaide in 1982 for `semi-retirement’. Never married, she died on 23 October 1988 at Christies Beach and was cremated. The Heather Gell Dalcroze Foundation was established in 1993 to develop teacher-training courses in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Cox, P. Holmes and J. Pope (compilers), Recollections: A Tribute to Heather Gell (1995)
  • J. Pope (ed), Heather Gell’s Thoughts on Dalcroze Eurhythmics and Music Through Movement (1996)
  • ABC Weekly, 4 Feb 1950, p 19
  • Gell papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Gell, Heather Doris (1896–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gell-heather-doris-12531/text22551, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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