In some ways the life of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was a paradox: he was born in Vienna, but is associated with Geneva, and his greatest popularity in his lifetime arose from his work in Hellerau, Germany; as a young man he worked as an actor and trained at the Comedie Francaise, but he is justifiably known as a composer and music teacher; and the name by which he is known was not the name given him at birth.

Dalcroze was born Emile Henri Jaques in Vienna on 6 July 1865. His father was a middle-class business man. Emile’s mother, Julie Jaques; had been a teacher in a Pestalozzi school. His mother’s work as a teacher provided a strong early influence on Emile’s ideas about teaching; his own teaching certainly agreed with Pestalozzi’s methods.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 – 1827) was a Swiss educational innovator in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pestalozzi believed a child’s education should consist of providing the child with opportunities to make discoveries. (Dalcroze particularly believed the experience should precede theory and conclusions.) Although Pestalozzi was not a musician (those close to him wrote that he couldn’t even hum well), he urged that schools feature a strong measure of music education to improve the general atmosphere of the school.

Emile’s introduction to music commenced with piano lessons at age six in 1871. The family moved to Geneva, Switzerland when he was ten. There he showed interest in composing as well, writing his first opera, "La Soubrette," at age sixteen in 1881.

Dalcroze possessed an active sense of humor throughout his life. He espoused the use of joy as a pedagogical tool. As a boy, he showed his flair for jokes and pranks. A circus and an Oriental monarch coincidentally visited Geneva at the same time when Emile was in his teens. Emile had no money for the circus. He obtained hotel stationary and wrote a note to the circus. They were to expect an imperial party tomorrow. The next day Emile and his friends appeared in improvised robes and costumes speaking pig Latin. The boys were ushered to the best seats in the house.

Throughout his youth, Emile displayed an active interest in theatre. In school, Emile joined the Belles-Lettres, a student society. He regularly appeared as an actor in the club’s plays. As a nineteen-year-old in the summer of 1884, Emile joined a touring stock company run by his cousin. He then traveled to Paris to study acting at the Comedie Francaise with tragedian Denis-Stanislaws Talbot, comedian Francois St. Germain, and Francois Jules Edmond Got. Also while in Paris, Emile attended lectures given by Dalsarte (whom, incidentally, seems to have been the uncle of Georges Bizet).

During this period, Emile also pursued music studies with composer and teacher Mathis Lussy. Lussy had studied and written at length on the subject of musical rhythm. Many of the concepts taught by Dalcroze found their basis in the work of Lussy.