The Australian Ballet

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When Ballet Was (Really) Tough

In December 1877, a ballet dancer wrote a letter in to the local newspaper The Era, describing the hardships of her job. “No one has a good word for us, because the world does not know one half of our trials and troubles,” she wrote.

It’s no secret that a dancer’s life is difficult – an enormous amount of dedication is required to get to the top of the field. But in Victorian England, ballet was considered a debased art form, partly because of the reputation forged earlier in the Regency era. Back then, rich noblemen used stage and studio as a kind of parlour, choosing their mistresses from amongst the dancers.

Backstage, because of their low status, dancers were not allowed in the “first” green room, which was reserved for actors and actresses of a certain position. A second green room was allocated for “the corps de ballet, the pantomimists, and all engaged in that line of business – what are called the little people …”

Ballet was not considered a proper vocation for a woman. Working conditions were poor and rehearsals went for four to six weeks, during which time the dancers weren’t paid for their work. After a long day of rehearsal they had to go home and sew their own costumes, so there was little time for rest.

Many were perpetually on the verge of starvation and dangerously close to illness, but if they spoke out against their treatment they were immediately fired. As the anonymous correspondent to The Era explained, if they were just five minutes late to rehearsal they were fined, a punishment which would have left them destitute: out of their already measly wage, they were also expected to pay for their tights, shoes and costumes.

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Ballet at the Paris Opera by Edgar Degas

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Green Room, King's Theatre 1822

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The Little Dancer, Aged 14 by Edgar Degas

Death by burning was an ever-present spectre. The dancers wore highly combustible muslin skirts, and there were a gaslights at the foot of the stage. Many dancers suffered serious injury or death from such accidents. Faulty trap doors were also a menace, and the ropes that pulled the dancers high above the stage, to give the appearance of flying, were often in a perilous state of decay. During one performance in Paris, in a production which starred the celebrated Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni, two sylphs who were being conveyed on wire through the air were stuck when the rigging jammed.

During the off-season, most dancers were forced to find other work, and some had to resort to even less reputable means of obtaining a livelihood. Working overseas was no better. An article in The Town in 1837 claimed that “The Italian Opera, behind the scenes, is a perfect seraglio for the use of the wealthy licentious.” Amongst the audience were “patrician patrons … [who] seek but to put our English girls to the vilest uses …”

Marie van Goethem was the dancer whom Degas used as a model for his famous sculpture La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (The Little Dancer, Aged 14). She and her sister earned extra money by working as artists’ models while they were enrolled in the Paris Opera School, but eventually, it was rumoured, they were both forced to turn to prostitution because of financial pressure from their family.

While dancers today must still invariably suffer hardships – packed schedules, the risk of injury, career disappointments – for the anxious fledgling ballerina it can be a comfort to remember the times when dancers used to have it really bad.