Degas’s dancers don’t just show ballet’s beauty – they reveal a sinister system of sexual exploitation

'The ballet dancers were treated as a kind of game preserve': The Rehearsal Onstage by Edgar Degas (c 1874), on view at The Met, New York
'The ballet dancers were treated as a kind of game preserve': The Rehearsal Onstage by Edgar Degas (c 1874), on view at The Met, New York - Alamy
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They draw you in from a distance, promising sheer aesthetic pleasure: pastel tutus, pretty girls. Once you’re there, you look closer. You notice the darkness around the edges; you wonder about the battered foot inside the pointe shoe. Degas’s dancers mesmerise for the same reason as ballet itself.

A new exhibition, Discovering Degas, provides ample opportunities to contemplate the paradoxical beauty of ballet. Opening next week at the Burrell Collection, in Glasgow, it features 23 Degas pieces from the museum’s own collection, as well as 30 works on loan from around the world.

Born to wealthy, conservative parents in 1834, Degas discovered his love for the opera as a child, and began painting scenes from the ballet in 1870. He would remain fascinated by dancers for the rest of his life – sculpting them from wax and clay after his eyesight began to fail. By the time of his death, at the age of 83, about half of Degas’s oeuvre was devoted to ballet.

His paintings bear witness to the quiet, in-between moments: a dancer practising alone at the barre, or lacing up the ribbons on her ankles. Degas was less interested in the glamour of performance than in the dancers’ classroom efforts, their backstage preparations and humdrum waiting in the wings. In paintings such as The Green Ballet Skirt (c 1896), which belongs to the Burrell’s ­permanent collection, a dancer reclines on a bench, averting her gaze and massaging her foot. The image draws out a poignant contrast between her lovely costume and her weary expression. In A Group of Dancers (c 1898), also on display at the Burrell, three women in tutus huddle in the corner of a studio. Bathed in an unearthly emerald light, they lean in towards each other, slouching and adjusting their hair.

Some of Degas’s paintings portray a tender world of women – some feature ominous figures lurking on the peripheries. Men in dark suits and top hats skulk in the wings, their faces obscured by shadows. Ballet masters, always male, dominate the classroom, wooden sticks in hand.

Ominous: Dancers, Pink and Green (c 1890), on view at The Met, New York
Ominous: Dancers, Pink and Green (c 1890), on view at The Met, New York - Alamy

In Degas’s era, the Paris Opera was a hub of prepubescent prostitution. Wealthy subscribers – known as abonnés – purchased the right to mingle with the dancers backstage and loiter in the wings during live performances. The architecture of the Palais Garnier, which opened in 1875, was designed to accommodate encounters between the dancers and their spon­sors: the ornate foyer de la danse functioned as both a rehearsal studio and a setting for trysts.

“Backstage at the opera was the veritable fiefdom of wealthy men, who treated the ballet dancers as a kind of game preserve,” the historian Robert Herbert once observed. The three boxes with the best view of the stage were reserved for the emperor, who was “not at all bashful about using his perch to scout out beautiful women”. Young dancers – trained in seduction as well as ballet – were thought to make excellent mistresses. “Be charming, sensual,” the 19th-century ballet master Auguste Vestris advised his pupils. “The box and orchestra and seat holders should want to carry you off to bed.”

This system was so entrenched, it was written up as an attraction in a guidebook to the city. “If only you are a financier, an investor wearing yellow gloves, a stockbroker… if only you are something like the uncle of a dancer or her protector… then the portals [to the Opera’s backstage world] become open to you,” Eugène Chapus wrote in Le Sport à Paris.

Poignant contrast: The Green Ballet Skirt (c 1896), which belongs to the Burrell's permanent collection
Poignant contrast: The Green Ballet Skirt (c 1896), which belongs to the Burrell's permanent collection - Burrell Collection

In Degas’s time, the hemline of the tutu – once a modest, calf-length garment – grew shorter. The dancers of 19th-century Paris were appreciated less for their artistry than for the titillating sight of their exposed legs and arms: a rare occurrence outside the demimonde. Some ballets were full-length entertainments, but dancers more often performed in brief divertissements embedded in ­operas. These interludes were typically delayed until Act II – giving the abonnés and their ballerina-dates time to finish dinner. (When Richard Wagner bucked this convention, daring to include a ballet in the first act of Tannhäuser (1845), angry members of the Jockey Club whistled their disapproval.)

There is a cruelty to Degas’s portrayal of the ballet world. In his pictures, women could only be mothers and dancers; men were authority figures and wealthy patrons, never peers.

The teenage dancers who came to Degas’s studio were often the young girls of the Paris Opera Ballet School, known, derisively, as petits rats – a nickname bestowed by the French poet Théophile Gautier, who wrote of their “gnawing and destructive tendencies”. Trainee dancers could be chosen for their looks as well as their talent, and often hailed from desperate families. Enrolment registers from 1850 show that about half the students had no known father; the mothers worked as low-wage laundresses or concierges, and would have welcomed an extra income. Many of the mothers – rather than protecting their daughters – encouraged them to flirt with potential patrons; and in Degas’s paintings, the mothers often appear as darkly-clad and menacing as the lecherous male spectators.

'An unearthly emerald light': A Group of Dancers (c 1898), on display at the Burrell
'An unearthly emerald light': A Group of Dancers (c 1898), on display at the Burrell - Burrell Collection

But seen from another angle, there is a dignity in Degas’s depiction. He sometimes painted étoiles, but he more often hired anonymous students to pose in his studio – elevating them, in his art, to starring roles. “Degas seems to have taken a quiet delight in giving prominence to the trainee dancer that she is unlikely to have enjoyed at this date,” write Degas scholars Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar in Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. In his early ballet works, he sometimes included their names. On an 1880 charcoal sketch of a dancer lifting her leg in battement à la seconde, for example, the name of the teenage model – “Melina” – is afforded as much space as Degas’s own signature.

Just as often, though – and especially in his later work – the women’s faces are a blur. His focus shifted from the individual dancers and their identities to the whirr of movement and light – swirling tutus, sweating legs.

Perhaps Degas recognised something familiar in the rigorous discipline of dancers. “It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, one hundred times,” the artist said, describing his own approach to work. Like a Paris Opera trainee repeating her endless pliés and ­tendus, Degas would draw the same model over and over, in slight ­variations of the same pose.

And like the dancers, he could be relentlessly harsh in his own assessment of his art. He once confided to a friend that he wished he could buy back all his early work – and destroy it. Reading this anecdote, I thought of Susan Sontag’s 1987 observation that “no species of ­performing artist is as self-critical as a dancer”. Trained to continuously monitor the mirror for flaws, ballet dancers are notorious perfectionists, almost never satisfied with a performance.

'No species of ­performing artist is as self-critical as a dancer': The Red Ballet Skirts (c 1895-1900) at the Burrell
'No species of performing artist is as self-critical as a dancer': The Red Ballet Skirts (c 1895-1900) at the Burrell - Alamy

Sexual exploitation in today’s ballet world is not as blatant as it was in 19th-century France; social norms have changed. Companies no longer sell access to dancers’ dressing rooms or allow men to wander around backstage during performances. The class dynamics have shifted, too. Boarding at ­London’s Royal Ballet School costs more than £30,000 a year, and dancers’ salaries are relatively low; ballet tends to attract children from well-off families.

Ballet today is a prestigious art form – but the ballerina is still a sex symbol. Many dancers supplement their income by moonlighting as Instagram influencers or models. When I was studying ballet in the mid-2000s, I was told that in croisé devant, I should tilt my head as if “asking for a kiss”.

Costumes are more revealing than ever; in the mid-20th century, George Balanchine’s costume designer, Karinska, invented a tutu so short that it was almost per­pendicular, revealing the dancer’s entire lower body. Then Balanchine did away with tutus entirely, ­sending women onstage in skintight ­leotards alone. Depriving dancers of even a layer of tulle ­exacerbated the pressure to maintain a perfect physique.

Though abuse may not be crudely advertised in guidebooks anymore, it is now more discreet, and a code of silence prevails. Female dancers are trained to fulfil a choreographer’s vision, suppressing their own impulses in favour of fitting in. As in 19th-century France, passivity can be rewarded.

Danger on the sidelines: The Star (1878), in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay
Danger on the sidelines: The Star (1878), in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay - Alamy

Even as ballet has professionalised, power imbalances persist. Girls and women still make up the majority of ballet students and corps dancers, while men are over-represented in positions of authority. As recently as the 2020-21 season, men choreographed 69 per cent of the ballets programmed by America’s major companies.

Competition for jobs is fierce, especially among women – and few are willing to risk a scandal. It’s mostly whistle-blowers and ex-dancers who dare to go public with accusations of mistreatment. In 2013, the Russian former dancer Anastasia Volochkova compared the Bolshoi to “a giant brothel”, alleging that ballerinas were pressured into sleeping with wealthy patrons – claims dismissed by the company’s general director as “ravings”. In her 2021 memoir Swan Dive, the soon-to-retire New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin alleged that a male colleague, Amar Ramasar, routinely tweaked her nipples in class. (Ramasar denied the allegation.)

Degas’s pictures remain beloved by dancers: from students who hang prints of The Dance Class (1874) on their bedroom walls to stars such as Misty Copeland, who re-enacted Degas’s The Star (1878) for Harper’s Bazaar. Perhaps they see something familiar in the ­danger on the sidelines and the striving faces of the girls – a sisterhood that crosses the centuries.

Discovering Degas is at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, from Fri–Sept 30 (; Alice Robb’s latest book is Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet (Oneworld, £10.99)

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