The title of this post is not an exaggeration, although the Opera directors would have preferred a more subtle one or, ideally, a complete silence on the subject. The Béraud’s painting above needs no further words. There is the internationally popular Edgar Degas with his paintings of hard-working, hard-driven little dancers, and there is our say-it-as-it-is Jean Béraud (more of him here), who bluntly covers the other end of the story. The true story of the Degas’s dancers.
In our day, such an enablement of the sex commerce in a prestigious cultural institution would be unthinkable. Welcome to the 19th century for a taste of life without women’s rights and women’s education, where a career choice outside marriage was limited mainly to servitude or prostitution. In a world made by men for the men, the Opera direction facilitated the meetings between wealthy men and the ballerinas by providing the former with an access to the backstage and, above all, to the dance foyer, where they could observe the dancers at a close range and, eventually, make a choice. The access was available for a substantial subscription fee.
In the 19th century, the ballet was more than the high-brow entertainment that makes today’s real men yawn. It was the height of an erotic experience. In an age, when an accidental glimpse of a female ankle could send a man’s heart into overdrive, the spectacle of exposed legs and nude arms in a variety of alluring positions would beat the Stanley Cup in attendance. (Also, and this may be somewhat important, there were no sports matches to watch.) A man’s prestige mattered as well. To maintain a Paris Opera ballerina, or at least to be seen dining with one, meant that you have arrived socially and economically.
Now back to Edgar Degas and his suffering little dancers. Since the profession was morally disreputable, the recruits came from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. A pretty daughter with a dancing talent was a God-sent gift to a struggling family. It was on the frail shoulders of this 12- to 13-year-old that the future of the family rested – it was her duty to provide them with a better life. Dancing alone would not bring the riches, the riches would come from the admirers; the girls knew that from the very beginning.
For the dancer, the road to success inevitably comes through men. First, there is the ballet master with his close touch while straightening a waist, repositioning a leg, or stretching an arm. The girl surrenders to the inescapable in order not to compromise her professional ascent. Then come other men, who all, one way or another, hold her career in their hands: the librettist, who gives her a role – or not – in the next ballet and the director who renews – or not – her contract. If she really wants to break out of the anonymity of the dance corps, she must quickly seduce a wealthy protector, who would pay for advanced dance classes.
To maintain a pretense of respectability, the direction allowed chaperones to be present at all times. These women, whether they were a mother, an aunt, or an older cousin, were the driving force behind each dancer and the unavoidable intermediaries between the girl and men. Other lessons were needed and provided: how to be desirable was taught with the same importance as the pas de danse. Théophile Gautier notes the results of this licentious education: “The young ballerina is at once corrupt as an old diplomat and as naïve as a good savage. At the age of thirteen, she could teach a courtesan.”
The “mothers” then negotiate the charms of their daughters and they can be quite tyrannical. Is the interested party old and ugly? Too bad, he’s got money so the daughter better be nice to him. Prices are agreed upon and, if a long-term liaison is in the making, a contract is signed at the notary’s office. A skillful mother can make herself included in the monthly allowance.
Those, who are not urged by their mothers to give themselves to a man do so on their own will. Without the protection of a wealthy man and, if possible, a titled one, they have no access to a professional recognition. It’s a man’s world and, in this profession, the masculine element holds the power. The only weapons in the arsenal of the ballerina are cunning and seduction.