Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Dancing, Desire, and Death: The Role of Footwear in Fairy Tales

In the last section of Colleen Hill's fabulous Fairy Tale Fashion, she included some essays by other writers. I was really excited to read Ellen Sampson's "Dancing, Desire, and Death: The Role of Footwear in Fairy Tales." Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my all time favorite tales and it's one I wish would be discussed more often; plus, the role of dancing in fairy tales can be so ambiguous and often contradictory.

There is a section specifically on footwear, although that topic has been discussed before here, so if you're interested in further reading on shoes, you can read about the significance of shoes in Perrault's time, Red shoes in fairy tales and history,  or Kathrine Langrish's excellent essay Slippers of Glass, Slippers of Fur on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

The subject of dancing in fairy tales, though, is a pretty bleak one at the outset for feminists. Sampson reminds us that many fairy tales were aimed to promote obedience in women-the Victorian versions we're most familiar with reflected the values of the day. "In fairy tales, women's bodies are strictly regimented and disciplined. They are controlled physically (putting Sleeping Beauty or Snow White to sleep), spatially (locking Rapunzel in a tower), maritally (gifted to Rumpelstiltskin as a reward), or sexually. Their bodies may be transformed (into geese or trees), altered (made handless or footless, smaller or larger) or even consumed, but they are rarely inhabited or possessed by their owners for long." I'm not sure which version of Rumpelstiltskin she's been reading...the protagonist is never given to him in marriage, but the King, but there are plenty of other tales where a princess is also given away in marriage, even against her will, so the point stands.

Sampson also points out that women who stray from the culturally accepted humility and dare to long for beautiful shoes, or to dance the night away, are severely punished. Karen in "The Red Shoes" eventually gets her feet amputated, similar to the stepsisters in Cinderella whose feet are mutilated in an attempt to fit into the slipper. Then, of course, there's the stepmother in Snow White whose punishment is to be danced to death in red hot iron slippers, fresh from the fire. "The animation of the body that shoes induce is punished in the most violent and spectacular manner...The production of stillness and silence is the aim of fairy tale violence-it renders the (female) body docile." Even for Cinderella and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, who may not be directly punished, through marriage they are given to the authority of another man and their dancing is stopped. The essay ends with the uncomfortable description of Karen's confession followed by her amputation.

Yet can that really be the whole symbolism of dancing in folklore? That is just represents women who are rebellious and must be tamed? I had wondered about the different uses of dancing-sometimes it leads to death, but in Cinderella's case it is both her reward and it's the catalyst that leads to another reward, the Prince/escaping a life of servitude. Sampson explains this by saying it's all about the context-women may dance at the proper time, the proper steps, in a formal setting-but must not dance out of passion and desire, like the twelve Princesses who dance the night away in an underground kingdom. Many scholars see the twelve Princesses as symbolic of women who are mobile and capable of rebellion-they spend the night exploring, dancing in a forbidden context, and the fact that their shoes are completely worn through by morning indicates the passion and extent to which they are dancing. They weren't performing a few courtly dances, but having a wild night of excessive dancing. In many fairy tales that feature shoes, it's even ambiguous as to who's controlling shoes-the Red Shoes force Karen to dance, and maybe it's the dancing shoes that brought the twelve sisters to the underground Kingdom and forced them to dance as well.

Scholars also interpret the Princess' underground nightly romps as being sexual in nature. It makes sense, but when I was younger it never occurred to me that you would need any other excuse to sneak out at night than to have access to an enchanted Kingdom in your own bedroom to explore, and fancy balls to attend. And here it  is that we see the often confusing logic of fairy tales-characters (and vicariously through them, the readers) are rewarded with the same things they are punished for desiring. We see many tales in which the main character is rewarded for being unmaterialistic-by being given great material wealth (such as in "Beauty and the Beast"). In Cinderella, the stepsisters must have chunks of their feet cut off for daring to desire the wonderful slipper and the royal life it represents-yet Cinderella is rewarded with both. Karen longs for the red shoes when she sees a count's daughter wearing them. Karen is punished, in a way, not for wanting beautiful things, but for wanting things that don't belong to her station in life-the red shoes are appropriate for the count's daughter, not for Karen; just as the slippers are meant for Cinderella and not her stepsisters. In a way it seems unfair, especially to our modern minds where we view class distinctions as less important than most other cultures.

And, although Sampson briefly mentions "Juniper Tree" as an example of how acquiring new shoes can be satisfactory, I think it's very important to contrast to the other tales, especially "Red Shoes." In that tale, Marlene is rewarded with a pair of red shoes. It's clear that she desires and enjoys them, and they are not seen as inappropriate for her, though she is poor, because she has a good heart. It's also important to remember that "Red Shoes," the most extreme example of a preachy tale concerning shoes and dancing, is not true folklore in the sense that the story has circulated around many cultures for generations with a similar structure, but was a literary invention of one man, Hans Christian Andersen.

Even in the tales in which dancing must be quelled, there is still a level of irony. Even if the Underground Kingdom is destroyed, the reader delights in the women's adventures there each time the tale is read or heard. Even if Cinderella doesn't dance any more after marriage, the descriptions of her dress and her own nightly adventures are the most thrilling part of her story (and frankly, her forbidden journeys to the ball are not that unlike the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and the twelve are hardly ever punished either for their so-called "indiscretions"). The very stories themselves betray their morals, as listeners delight in what is officially termed bad by the "lesson" we supposedly learn afterwards.

And, one story I wish Sampson had touched on is the ballet "Giselle." It's technically not a fairy tale, but neither is "Wizard of Oz" which she referred to many times. The haunting plot involves a group of Wilis, or supernatural women who force men to dance to their deaths. The idea of Wilis came from a passage by Heinrich Heine, but they are related to the Vila, a Slavic version of nymphs. In the context of the ballet, the women are said to be jilted lovers, and that is why they prey on men. So in a way, although they are the villains, the actions they perform reflect the original wrong, done to them by men-sort of like a gender-swapped version of King Shahryar in 1001 Nights, killing women because his first wife cheated on him. The very image of men being danced to death is a contrast to the popular tales referenced earlier, in which women's dancing is primarily described and their partners merely an afterthought.

How do you see the role of dancing in fairy tales?

Illustrations-"Twelve Dancing Princesses" by Kay Nielsen, "Red Shoes" by Anne Andersen, "Cinderella"-A.H. Watson, "Juniper Tree," by LBarrett, Wilis from "Giselle"-the SF Ballet


  1. It is true that no tale by the title of "Rumpelstiltskin" has the girl being forced to marry him. However, there are some variants of it (where the character has different names) that have it. Instead of having to give up her child, she has to marry the little man unless she can guess his name. In some other versions, she will simply be his slave if she can't guess his name, while in others, she has to guess his name to get him to spin for her at all.

    1. That's fascinating, I don't think I've come across any variants where there's anything at stake other than her future baby! Can you point me in the direction of some of those tales?


  2. The connection between dancing and sex ahas been a part of our culture for a long time and aparently still is, at least judging from countless teen comedies that concern themseves with their protagonists "scoring (or failing to do so) after the prom. While balls at the court or later for the educated middle-class were highly reglemented social events (even though I suppse even therepeople who wabsolutelywanted to sneak off to a private chamber had the oppurtunity to do so), the village and town festivals in the country often involved sex more directly. Even nowdays in Germany the birth rates in rural communities tend to rise nine months after marksmen's festivals. The general opinion was thatg irls who loved to dance also loved to participate in certain after-dance-activities and therefore dancing itself was viewed suspisciously. Many folksongs warn girls against dancing. A humorous swedish folksong tells of a boy who runs off to the woods right after the "dance" is over, more serious folksongs are told from the perspective of a young woman who loved to dance... but now can't go to festivities anymore, because she has to care for her baby. In a Ukranian folksong the girls at the dance are even demonized by portraying them as witches out to kill men (though, unlike in Giselle, not by dancing, bt by giving them drugged wine, showing that not ony teen sex, but also teen drug abuse isa problem older than many think). Like in the folktales you wrote about, there seems to be an ambiguity. At least some of these songs wrewere performed as dance music as festivals. The dancers betray the moral of the song, before the song is even over. Sometimes taboos only make the forbidden activity more desirable.

    Did you link Sampson's essay somewhere or is it from a book? She makes some good arguments, would love to read the whole thing. On some dtails I'm iffy though. Transformation as mans of cotrol seems to be more of a male thing in folk tales. Women mostly transform voluntarily and the male gains control over them by taking away their ability to transform. I've always seen female transformation as an expression of the desire for freedom. Does she exemplify what she means?

    A ballet about beautiful women using their sex appeal to exact an irrational revenge? Of course it's inspired by Heine! ;) I haven't heard of Giselle yet, but I'll definitely try to check it out. Judging from Wikipedia, the plot seems quite interesting. Though I'm not sure whether thedon't learn anything or better their ways, so to me they don't seem to go beyond the "woman scorne" stereotype. Though, mind I haven't actually seen the ballet, so my opinion on that might change.

    1. I read the essay in Colleen Hill's "Fairy Tale Fashion," and it looks like you can read it here too:

      It seems she tends to interpret all transformation as control of women, but I would love to hear what you think!

    2. "Women mostly transform voluntarily and the male gains control over them by taking away their ability to transform."

      That was my interpretation ;) But I can elaborate on it.

      There are typically two types of female animal transformations in fairy tales:

      a) Birds. A symbol of freedom in many cultures. It gives them the opportunity to intrud private property (i.e. to steal fruit) or bathe in privacy. Once the male protagonist steals their feather or transformation item, the woman is dpendent on him. Some of these stories have an uncomfortable vibe to hem from a female perspectives, such as when the man hides away or burns the transformation item (compare the selkie stories which replace birds with seals), but in others he simply uses the theft as means to make contact and handsit back over one the woman is talking to him. However even then most stories end with the transformation item being destroyed after the woman marries the protagonist. After entering marriage, the woman's indepence is lost.

      b) Ugly animals (tortoise, frog, snake...) Like with the animal bridegroomstories, these animal bride stories often start with the protagonist hving to marry/live with a seemingly monstrous being against their will. However unlike with animal bridegroom stories, the protagonist is not afraid of their new partner. They are merely worried that other's will judge them for their unattractive partner. In animal bridgroom stories the bridegroom usually wants to break the spell and manages to do so with the help of his brid. But animal brides don't look for disentchantment,there is no evil wtch that enchanted her, usually the reason for her animal form remains a mystery. They are able to take off their animal guise. And they do so to help their partner look good in front of his friends and relatives. But they don't want to stay in this form. Going into interpretation now: They don't wat to conform to society's expecations. They may do it for their lover. But then they want to crawl back into their ugly hide, where they can't be held up to any standards. Their lover however doesn't want that. He destroys the transformation item, taking away her hiding place. Of course after she has showed her pretty face, her beautiful dancing and her home making skills, she couldn't have gone back to being "just" a toad anyway. But still she is furious. Her husband has broken her trust and now he has to win it back. She goes into hiding and he has to look for her. After his journey, we hope, they have reached an agreement where she doesn't need to hide aymoreand he is not putting his own social standing before her well-being.

  3. I want to offer a twist on this interpretation, via personal experience, if I may. I was a dancer - a 'real' dancer - for well over half my life. I was passionate about dancing - the drill, the perfection, the freedom, testing physics, finding that whole body resonance with music, space and audience... When I found myself single again at a still young-ish age in LA, not only did I continue going to 'class' as often as I could afford, but I also went to any club that would let me (or a pretty friend I could use the coat-tails of) in. Dancing and sex couldn't be more linked at these places and I was a source of complete bewilderment to most I danced with - except for other 'full time dancers'. You see I would happily dance with almost anyone, but only dance. I was never interested in going home, or even having a drink, with anyone I danced with. I only cared about the music and the movement, and anyone who wouldn't let me dance as I wanted to - for freedom, joy and expression - was said goodbye to, very quickly. As exciting as it could be, it was also, in equal measure annoying, and I often spent a lot of time dancing by myself, (which had a tendency to lead to a second set of incorrect conclusions - sigh). When you LOVE dancing, it is life. Even amazing sex doesn't come close, and apparently that's quite threatening to men in particular, but also to women who don't have that avenue of feeling so free. I can see dancing in fairy tales as bucking convention in female sexual expression, for sure. It definitely fits. But it would not surprise me to find that it was also about the independence of sex - and the traditional role of catching a mate - that was part of the story too, especially for the 12DP. Dancing well and using your body just because it 'puts you in the groove with the universe' - with zero ulterior motive, is something most people just don't understand. Dancing is usually seen as a means to an end, 'preparation' for other acts, or as code. To be independent of that very thing that drives most of society, ie. coupling - from the wanton and sexually liberal to the traditionalist and mate-motivated - is threatening. What do you do with a female who doesn't care about being 'desirable' or about being 'chosen for a mate'? Especially then? Even today there's pressure - and caution - around an independent woman. Not sure why people think it might cause revolutions, except that sometimes, it has. ;)

    1. I can relate to you in this-although I'm not especially good at dancing/have had no formal training, I love to dance! The thrill of adventure and dancing seemed like a perfectly good reason for 12 sisters to venture out at night (and hey, positive sister relationships too!). So even though I'm familiar with cultural ideas like girls losing their virginity after Prom, as Julia mentioned above, it kind of surprised/saddened me to read that critics interpret this tale as wanton women out having sex all night. But it's cool to think that it's still about females who defy conventions-whether they're out being sexual on their own terms, or dancing just for the joy of it and not the approved means of finding a "suitable mate."

  4. Well quite an interesting post. When it comes to shoe i always go for the best; but never noticed the its importance in fairy tale and all. Thanks for making me rethink on the minute details.