Reader Lucreza Borgia asked if dancers (like actresses) were historically considered prostitutes, which raises the highly interesting topic of dancers’ changing social status. I’m mainly referencing Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, which is an excellent comprehensive history of ballet (and to my knowledge, the only comprehensive history). I’d strongly recommend it for anyone interested in European cultural history.
Ballet began in the courts of Renaissance Italy, but it came into its own as an art form in France, during the reign of Louise XIV. Louis himself was an avid dancer, and harnessed court opera-ballets as a form of political theater, in the truest sense of the word. As a teenager, he appeared in Le Ballet de la Nuit, an all-night extravaganza designed to bolster Louis’ image and prestige. At dawn, he appeared as the sun god Apollo, waking France to the glory of his reign.
The ability to dance well was extremely important to success at court; nobles who performed poorly in the presence of the king slunk away from Versailles in shame. Ballet was considered a very masculine pursuit, in accordance with the Renaissance renewal of the classical ideal of the male body. It was also still considered scandalous for women to perform in public, and female roles in story ballets were performed by boys and men en travesti. Noblewomen did begin to perform their own dances in court ballets, however.
So in the beginning ballet was the preserve of kings and noblemen. In 1661, Louis founded the Royal Academy of Dance, with the remit to codify dances and license teachers. (Its affiliated ballet company survived as the Paris Opera Ballet, which is the oldest and largest ballet company in the world.) When Louis retired from dancing, other dancers were able to step in, and ballet became increasingly professionalized. Circus performers were recruited to dance in ballets, and they influenced the art form to become more athletic. It became acceptable for commoners to dance ballet, and by the end of the 17th century women were performing as professional dancers as well.
In France, ballet dancers were in the direct employ of the king. For men, this was a straightforward arrangement, as they existed in a traditional framework of royal employment and patronage. For women, this was a strong departure from the system of coverture, which placed women under the legal authority of a male guardian at all times. They were employed by the king, but he wasn’t their guardian, and they weren’t under the authority of their fathers or husbands either. This completely flummoxed the court system of the time; Homans recounts one incident in which a dancer had commissioned renovations to her house, and the courts had no idea who to hold responsible for the payment. Since she didn’t have a husband, was the king responsible for paying her fees? Should the nobleman with whom she was having an affair pick up the tab? In the end, they decided that the dancer was responsible for paying it herself, but they were emphatically displeased with the notion of a woman handling her own money and representing her own person in court.
So female dancers existed in their own particular sphere, seemingly exempt from some of the laws that governed the rest of the women of France. They were commoners who lived very close to the aristocracy, and spent much of their time portraying aristocrats onstage. As Homans notes, in the 17th and 18th centuries, people understood events on stage to be really happening–if an actor died in a play, they considered him to be actually dead for that period of time; if a dancer portrayed an aristocrat, she was really an aristocrat, at least until she left the stage. This belief, combined with the relative meritocracy of ballet, which allowed a talented person from a working class background to achieve substantial fame, was highly discomfiting to some members of the upper class.
Many female dancers did become mistresses to noblemen, and some people derided the royal ballet as “the national harem.” But famous ballet dancers were courtesans with higher social status and greater freedoms than working class prostitutes. Eighteenth century dancers like Marie Sallé traveled in intellectual circles and greatly influenced the art form. (I’m pretty sure Sallé was not a courtesan. It wasn’t a requirement for career success.) She created choreography that was naturalistic, sensual, and emotional, and insisted on performing without a corset or wig, so as not to hamper her movements (and it was pretty scandalous to show your natural hair at the time!). Her contemporary Marie Camargo (who was a courtesan) proved that women could perform the same athletic jumps as the men, removed the heels from her shoes so she could jump better, and raised her skirts above her ankles (which shockingly exposed her super sexy feet) so that the audience could see her fancy footwork. I’m not kidding–her feet became fetishized. It was a huge boon to her shoemaker, who found himself swamped by orders from those who wanted shoes like La Camargo.
Denmark and Russia also wholeheartedly adopted ballet during the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t know much about the history of the Royal Danish Ballet, but I would guess that it had the same close ties to the Danish court. And Russia, as most people know, became the powerhouse of the ballet world. In the early days, nobles would make ballet companies out of their serfs, which is bizarre on a number of levels, but which also afforded those serfs a chance for a more comfortable life. Ballet dancers were well provided for, even in the harshest days of Russia and the Soviet Union. They literally had better food security than most of the population, and were typically better educated, as well.
And yes, many dancers became mistresses to nobles. There’s even one variation (solo) from the 19th century Russian ballet Paquita that contains unusual arm movements designed to show off gifts of jewelry from the dancer’s “benefactor.” If I remember my history correctly, the originator of that role was Mathilde Kschessinskaya (or Kschessinska), who had affairs with two grand-dukes and the future Tsar Nicholas II. In 1917, Lenin addressed the masses from the balcony of her house in St. Petersburg. Kschessinskaya decamped to Paris and taught the next generation of ballet dancers, becoming part of the exodus of Russian artists following the revolution.
So I guess the short answer to Lucreza Borgia’s original question is: it’s complicated. There were dancers like Marie Sallé and Olga Preobrajenska who were not courtesans and had very successful careers; there were dancers like Marie Camargo and Mathilde Tschessinskaya who were courtesans and had very successful careers. The majority of dancers, of course, toiled in obscurity. And dancers did marry as well, during or after their careers. Tschessinskaya married one of her grand-dukes after they fled to France.
This is Alina Somova of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet (the Imperial Ballet, in Tschessinskaya’s day) performing the variation from Paquita. The arm movements begin around 1:30, although really the whole thing is designed to show off jewelry.
If you’re interested in further reading, I do recommend Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels. Full disclosure: I get a very small percentage of the sale if you use this link to buy the book on Amazon. If you’d like to buy the book, I’d be most grateful if you did it from here!