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A Wonderful Historical Fiction Story: Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner

“Dancing for Degas” is a wonderful historical fiction story set in Paris, during the glamorous Belle Epoque era. Behind the facade of glitz, wealth, culture and industrial growth, Paris has a sordid underbelly. It is in this era, that young, vulnerable ballerinas were sexual fodder for rich, powerful and older men. In this book, Kathryn Wagner portrays the ugly truth behind the prestigious Paris Opera.

Ballet Dancers on stage at the Paris Opera - Edgar Degas Pastel
Ballet Dancers on stage at the Paris Opera – Edgar Degas Pastel

The Sinister Truth Behind the Iconic Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet, founded in 1669, was one of the world’s first professional ballet companies. Throughout the 19th century, this highly prestigious venue was a cultural icon of Paris.

The Paris Opera was in fact a city within a city as it employed around 6,000 people. The Ballet company of the Paris Opera was a magnet for naive, young girls (usually from poor families) who had dreams of escaping poverty through dance. Unknown to many of these girls, the Paris Opera Ballet also fulfilled the lustful dreams of wealthy and powerful men in search of a very young, beautiful mistress “lorette”

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Edgar Degas’ Obsession with the Backstage Life of the Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera fascinated the impressionism painter, Edgar Degas. The artist spent endless hours here, painting different scenes. He sometimes painted the ballet performances, but mostly the scenes of the dancers in their classrooms.

Degas was not a huge fan of ballet as an art, nor did he find the dancers particularly beautiful. He in fact considered these girls indecent animals. He named them with the derogatory nickname “the little rats” (les petits rats).

The female human body in movement fascinated Degas. He created more than 1500 artworks of the dancers, inventing new techniques for capturing them in movement.

Historical Fiction Story - Dancing for Degas
Edgar Degas Pastel – capturing the Ballet dancer in movement

A Disturbing Novel involving the Impressionist Edgar Degas

The magnificent Edgar Degas paintings of the Paris Opera come to life in this wonderful art historical fiction novel.

While Degas paints the girls, we read about what it means to be a famous ballerina at the prestigious Paris Opera.

The reality behind the scenes of the beautiful ballet performances is something far more sinister. Sexual exploitation of these young ballerinas was the accepted norm at the Paris Opera in the 19th century. Wealthy, married men lurked the backstage.

These rich and powerful men were entitled to do whatever they pleased with these young girls. In reality, the Paris Opera Ballet was nothing more than a highly acclaimed brothel for the wealthy male pedophiles.

The Men backstage - Edgar Degas Painting of the Paris Opera Ballet
The Men backstage – Edgar Degas Painting of the Paris Opera Ballet

The Sordid Truth Behind the Paris Opera Ballet

Sex favors were a part of a ballerina’s reality and the Palais Garnier was designed to accommodate this. Inside the building was a “Green Room” located behind the stage. It was here where the dancers would warm up before performances. And after performances, wealthy male patrons of the opera gathered here. In this room, they conducted business, socialized and ‘proposed’ to the ballerinas.

Most of the ballerinas came from impoverished families. Many joined the ballet to support their families back home. The dancers’ income often depended on the men who prowled the girls backstage.

Edgar Degas’s Paintings Come to Life

Degas spends hours at the Paris Opera. He also knew exactly what was happening between the young dancers and older men!

While creating his iconic paintings, we learn about the grueling life of the young dancers. This novel focuses on one particular ballet dancer, Alexandrie. Degas asks Alexandrie to model for him. We read that comes from a very poor family in a farming village in France. Alexandrie feels that her only way out from the difficult farm life is with the Paris Opera. She dreams of becoming a famous ballet dancer.

Through the eyes of Alexandrie we learn of the the physical and emotional demands the ballet dancers endure. We read of the jealousies between the young girls. Although Alexandrie dreams for so much more, she learns quickly that the best future available to her and her family is to become a lorette, a kept mistress of a wealthy, “respectable” married man.

The Paris Opera Ballet - Edgar Degas Painting
The Paris Opera Ballet – Edgar Degas Painting

A Wonderful Historical Fiction Story Immersing You into 19th Century Paris

“Dancing for Degas” is a wonderful read.  The book immerses you into the fascinating world of the 19th century France. You will be transported into Paris during the glamorous Belle Epoque, when the emerging French impressionists are still young and relatively unknown.

This art historical fiction story gives you a peek into the sinister world of the Paris Opera Ballet and the sordid fate of the ballet dancers. Your heart will break when you read about what these young girls endured then (but I guess nothing much has changed at all ).

Kathryn Wagner has researched this topic well. She is a great writer and storyteller. Enjoy!

If you would like to read about more novels about the Impressionists, see the articles below: