Besides the Dance, In this Degas Painting, What Looks Familiar to Dancers of Today? (Look Closely!)
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Historians often struggle with finding hard evidence about what is commonly accepted as historical truth about the subjects they study. This is true for fields such as dance, where social interaction, gossip and sometimes, slander, have been the primary vehicles of data transfer, versus academic writing or study. In dance, particularly in Classical Ballet through the beginning of the 20th century, illiteracy amongst the population of dancers, some régisseurs, repetiteurs, and artistic directors was the norm. This is why much of the information we know about the pre-modern era, was verbally passed from dancer to dancer, dancer to writer, writer to historian. So, much of what we know is based upon third and fourth hand hearsay and written documentation. Very little information can be corroborated as definitive, because first-hand witnessing, written word and proof was rare. It is true that such evidence as performance programs, theatrical documentation, administrative files, and criticism and articles from each era, have codified much of the "who, what, when and where" of our art form. But, as far as the "how and why" of ballet? Faith in casual narrative has been the main source of understanding. Of course, this kind of conjecture was unreliable. But, over time, agreement between the accepted historian-kings subdued any curiosity to data-mine actual truth. It is my goal in research, to use what apparent evidence there is available peripheral to common belief, to uncover likely alternatives, and in many cases, debunk common historical misconceptions. Know this: it wins me no friends. Age old legends long believed as truth, are difficult to deconstruct. And, in subsequent posts you will read evidence-based refutations of these long believed myths of classical ballet. So, before the fire....for my first post? A little fun! This is a Balletic, "Where's Waldo?" Please take a deep look at the above photo. Find the object dancers (like many of us) everywhere have used for years, but possibly never thought you've seen before current era. If you can't find it, scroll down and I'll show it to you. In this case, this object in question, wasn't designed to be used in the way dancers adapted it to be. In fact its purpose was completely different and had little to do with dancers at all. Personally, in my 27 years dancing and/or performing professionally, I was not alone in procuring one of these exact items as an everyday tool for my dance bag. In fact, some bright inventive dancer some, decided to manufacture a better version, specific to its use, and sell it to the global community...whoever it was, likely did very well for themselves!
Give up? Here it is. Look in the lower left of the painting. Under the piano. Next to the bass viol. There. Under the Danseuse's foot. But, what is it? Today they make them commercially just for the purpose she's using it: a "Footsie Roller." They didn't make them back then. (Heck, in the 19th century, the dancer was an expendable commodity, so there was no reason why anyone would make anything to help them.) So what is it, then, that the gal is massaging her exhausted plantar flexors (her arches) on? It is a large empty thread spool, likely from the wardrobe shop. Classical Dancers would grab the empty spools and keep them in what we now call their "dance bags."...just like dancers have for the 140+ years since this painting was framed. Now we have rollers, self-myfacsial release tools to massage ourselves. But, an empty spool? Any port in a storm of muscle soreness! Plantar Fasciitis was as much of truth in 19th century France and Russia, as it is now!
Ballet may have changed over the years since Degas recorded the hardships of women at the Paris Opera, (men were a commodity and rare from the ultra-misogynistic Romantic through Classical era of Ballet). What and how we dance may have evolved. But essentially, these women, are still our lineal ancestors - some of whom may have become our teacher's, teacher's, teachers teacher! In this, Dancers haven't changed. We are still part of the same family of dancer/performers, and the dancer-culture which is continuing to evolve to this day. - Edward Degas, The Dance Class, / Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France.
Philip S. Rosemond, © 5-23-21