Things to know about Mary Cassatt; an American that spent her adult life in Paris. She became friends with Edgar Degas, the Impressionist painter who was well known for his paintings of ballerinas and dancers. Mary either was a pupil or a collaborator with Degas.
The Parisian Dance Moms
Madame Collette took little Maria’s hands in hers and looked at her mother. “Oh Madame, she has wonderful bone structure! Such delicate hands! She will make a fine dancer like your Fannie.” Madame Colette owned the most famous dance school in Paris for young children. She trained many a young child to become excellent ballerinas for the stage. “You must bring her to me when she is four and I will train her.”
The mother beamed as she looked adoringly at her newest little girl. Maria’s nanny, the American slave girl Penelope, was anxiously watching the Mother’s face as she knew that Madame Marchand was counting on her second daughter to follow in the footsteps of her older sister who now was taking lessons from Madame Collette.
“I must go and teach now. So busy today! Classes and Mr. Degas is coming to sketch today.” Madame Collette said as she dramatically glided away from the trio of mother, nanny, and child.
“Did you hear that Penny? Madame Collette said she would take little Maria at four! That’s even younger than she took Fannie!” Penny nodded her head feeling sorry for little Maria. Fannie had just finished a private lesson with the dance instructor and was resting before she took the group lesson. Penny knew the seven-year-old was a favorite of Madame Collette, but she paid for it by having no time to do anything else but dance and coming home each day exhausted.
The little family settled into chairs in the waiting area outside the studio. Maria begged, and fussed to be set down on the floor. To entertain her, Penny rolled a ball to Maria. She was soon happy playing there on the floor. The door to the studio opened, and the other mothers arrived carting their children behind. Each mother busily assisted their little girls into pink tutus and laced up their ballet slippers. Most happily went into the studio alone, but a few were crying at the thought of leaving their mothers and entering the domain of Madame Collette.
Penny couldn’t blame them. From behind the studio doors, they could hear the sharp voice of Madame Collette shaming a crying child and making them stand in the corner by the barre as the other children warmed up. They could hear Madame Collette thumping her cane on the floor as she kept time with the music. The mothers could also hear the thwack of her long thin cane on a child’s legs which were not correctly set as they practiced the ballet positions. Penny flinched each time she heard that noise as it reminded her of her early years before coming to Paris with her American Master.
“Mrs. Marchand, congratulations! I heard little Fannie is to have three solos in the next review. What an accomplishment!” said Madame DeBois.
Madame Marchand smiled, “Yes, yes, little Fannie is working very hard this year. Madame Collette has great faith in her.” Penny heard a trace of restraint in Fannie’s voice. “And your little girl? What is she to do in the review?”
Madame DeBois’ smile tightened, “Why I am hoping she will be in one of the trios.”
“Hmm,” Replied Madame Marchand as she nodded her head. She returned the tight smile and said. “Just today Madame Collette said that little Maria here has excellent features for dance. She said I should start her here when she is four.”
Penny had observed this before among the mothers. They vied between them for their daughters to be better than one another. The doting mothers rivaled each other to promote their child. Madame Marchand was by far the best at this game because Madame Collette favored Fannie.
Penny’s thoughts were broken by the studio door suddenly being flung open, and a child came running out scrambling among the chairs to find her mother. The child was sobbing. Penny recognized the child as Susanne DeBois. Penny couldn’t understand what the child was saying other than she “never wanted to come back.”
Madame Collette appeared at the door. “Madame DeBois, your child has not practiced properly; please don’t bring her back unless she does her work at home.” Her voice was flat and authoritative. She turned and marched back into the studio shutting the door behind her.
Penny watched as a furious Madame DeBois grabbed her daughter’s hand and drug her to the door. At the same time, a little man dressed in black struggled to come in the door. He was toting an easel and a large sketch pad. The sobbing Susanne and the easel became entwined as they each attempted to make their way in the opposite direction. Madame DeBois jerked on Susanne’s arm and freed her. She gave the little man a disgusted look and retreated down the hallway.
The little man stood watching the mother and child go. With a shrug of his shoulders, he managed to gather his equipment together and into the waiting area. He tipped his bowler hat towards the mothers and proceeded to the studio door. Without even knocking he entered Madame Collette’s classroom.
“That must be Edgar Degas.” Whispered Madame Marchand. “You know he is an accomplished artist. I wonder why he is here.”
“To paint someone?” Penny said.
“No, I think he is going to sketch the whole class.”
Penny wondered how Madame Collette would deal with that kind of interruption to her teaching. However, they heard no upraised voices coming from the classroom. The wait seemed extra-long on this day. Maria yawned and climbed into Penny’s lap. She cuddled into her shoulder as Penny softly sang to her. Soon Maria was asleep. Finally about four o’clock the little ballerinas filed out the door. They all looked exceedingly tired. Fannie was last to exit.
Madame Marchand stooped to help Fannie take off her ballet slippers and put on her street shoes. Penny let out a soft gasp when she saw the little girl’s feet. They were blistered, and some areas were bleeding. She saw tears forming in Fannie’s eyes, but she did not utter a complaint. Penny hoped they would go home by cab rather than make the little girl walk the five blocks to their home.
Penny was relieved to leave the stuffy waiting room. She carried Maria as Fannie and Madame Marchand walked in front of her. Fannie was limping. Not for the first time she thought Poor little girls, they are bound to suffer for being dancers. She shook her head and wondered who was more a slave, herself, or these two precious girls?
I hope you enjoyed my story. Comments are always welcome.