Gisela (Gisa) Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, on 28 November 1898, the second of four children of Hermann Frankl, a tinsmith, and his wife, Malvine Neuner. She attended elementary and secondary school before spending two years at a commercial school in Vienna. From there she went to the gymnastic school of the Maccabi Sporting Association, a Jewish youth movement, and graduated in athletics and gymnastics. At Bess Mensendieck’s school she took an advanced course in gymnastics and later became an assistant teacher there. She was now a highly trained instructor of physical education.
In Central Europe at that time, theories on the connection between the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of the individual were being adopted by young teachers of movement and drama. Gisa absorbed these new ideas while studying at Madame Tordis’s school of rhythmic dancing and mime. Later, she worked as Tordis’s assistant as well as running a dance school of her own and gaining a diploma of physical education in Vienna in 1927.
On 27 October 1921, at Vienna, Gisa married Adolph Leo Taglicht, a youth movement leader. The couple proved incompatible, however, and the marriage lasted only about two years. Adolph later went to Israel and finally to the United States. To supplement her earnings as a teacher of physical culture, Gisa worked in an office, but lost her job when the Nazis imposed laws forbidding Austrian firms to employ Jews. She also formed a relationship with Carlo Schwartz which lasted over many years, surviving the long separation after she fled Austria and Nazi persecution in 1938. She was to hear later that her mother and sister died in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942.
Gisa Taglicht went to London, and stayed a year, earning her living from domestic and then secretarial work. Her younger brother, Johann (Hans) Frankl, took his wife and daughter to Wellington, New Zealand, in March 1939, and later started a small business there. That year, Gisa also sailed for Wellington. Through necessity, she worked initially as a domestic and then, in 1941, she established a rhythmical gymnastics school in Willis Street. In 1943 she was appointed director of physical education for the YWCA, where she taught for the next 20 years.
Physical education in New Zealand had traditionally consisted of squad drill (often referred to as ‘physical jerks’), some gymnastics, and limited and unimaginative military-style routines. Her great contribution to New Zealand’s physical and cultural life was to introduce rhythmical gymnastics, free-flowing movements suited to the natural rhythms of the body and performed to appropriate music and the beat of the drum. At that time there was an unfolding of fresh ideas and more creative approaches to education, and C. E. Beeby, director of education, was initiating revolutionary changes in the whole approach to children’s education. Philip Smithells, superintendent of physical education, was impressed with Taglicht’s work and incorporated her ideas in the training of physical education teachers. Her teaching methods gradually permeated physical education programmes in post-primary schools. She was made a fellow of the Physical Education Society of New Zealand in 1942 and served on the executive committee. In July 1946 she became a naturalised New Zealand citizen.
At the YWCA, ‘Madame Taglicht’, as she was known, taught kindergarten students, postgraduate nurses, dental nurses, housewives and older women and conducted classes for children on Saturdays. She was a visiting teacher to several private secondary schools. She also took private pupils and ran an advanced class, whose members demonstrated her more creative work in concerts. In 1948, the New Zealand National Film Unit made a documentary about her work called Rhythm and movement. This was shown in cinemas throughout New Zealand, at the Edinburgh festival, and on television in the United States. She lectured extensively to organisations in New Zealand, including the New Zealand Association of Teachers of Speech and Drama.
Taglicht’s ideas on the importance of relaxation were advanced for the time. When the Wellington Parents’ Centre was formed in the early 1950s, she was employed to teach pregnant women relaxation and breathing exercises, which many found invaluable during the rigours of childbirth. She tutored aspiring actors in movement and relaxation, working with the New Zealand Drama Council’s annual summer schools over many years and the New Zealand Players during the 1950s. The New Zealand Opera Company also employed her. Her work has been continued and expanded by her followers.
Taglicht travelled overseas several times during her residence in New Zealand, visiting old friends and relatives in America, England and Europe. She studied new trends in her profession and gave lectures and radio talks while abroad. In Vienna in 1950 she represented the Physical Education Society of New Zealand at the international gymnastics festival and conference. In New York she was especially impressed with Josephine Rathbone’s relaxation and corrective exercises for various physical disabilities, and she applied them to her own work.
Gisa Taglicht moved with grace and poise, had a warm and appealing personality, a sense of humour and a cultured mind. She made many friends in Wellington among people in the world of dance, music, drama and literature, but there was always a streak of sadness in her, too. She was torn between two worlds. Having been wrenched away from her native city by Nazi persecution she missed the cosmopolitan artistic life. She never felt entirely at home in New Zealand and after her visits overseas always returned unsettled. Her homeland finally drew her back and, in 1964, she left New Zealand and settled permanently in Salzburg with her old friend, Carlo Schwartz. She died there in 1981.