The star’s moment should be triumphant. She’s brilliantly lit, her leg lifted in a graceful ballet pose, and she’s clearly the star of the show. But in the wings lurks a black-clad figure—a symbol for the sordid backstage reality of the ballerina.
It’s not clear who Edgar Degas used as the model for the 1879 painting, L’Etoile, that depicts that tense moment. But it’s likely that she was a prostitute. Sex work was part of ballerinas’ realities during the 19th century, an era in which money, power and prostitution mingled in the glamorous and not-so-glamorous backstage world of the Paris Opera.
The Paris Opera Ballet, founded in the 17th century, was the world’s first professional ballet company, and continues as one of the preeminent outfits today. Throughout the 19th century, it raised the bar for dance—but on the backs of many exploited young women.
Women entered the ballet as young children, training at the opera’s dance school until they could snag a coveted position in the corps de ballet. Girls who studied at the school became apprentices to the Opera; only after years of militaristic training and a series of brutal exams could they get guaranteed, long-term contracts.
In the meantime, they attended classes and auditioned for small, walk-on roles. Often malnourished and dressed in hand-me-downs, the “petits rats” of the ballet were vulnerable to social and sexual exploitation. And the wealthy male subscribers of the Paris Opera—nicknamed abbonés—were often on hand to exploit them.
“The ballet is…what the bar-room is to many a large hotel,” wrote Scribner’s Magazine in 1892, “the chief paying factor, the one from which the surplus profits come.” Men subscribed to the opera not for the music, but for the beautiful ballerinas who danced twice per show—and, behind the scenes, they bought sexual favors from the women they ogled on stage.
The abonnés were so powerful, they were part of the Opera’s very architecture: When Charles Garnier designed his iconic opera house in the 1860s, he included a special separate entrance for season ticket holders. The building also included a lavish room called the foyer de la danse. Located directly behind the stage, it was a place where ballet dancers could warm up and practice their moves before and during performances. But it was designed with male patrons, not dancers, in mind. The foyer was a place for them to socialize with—and proposition—ballet dancers.
At the time, women’s bodies were typically covered by lots of clothing. In contrast, ballet dancers wore skimpy and revealing outfits (though ballet costumes of the time, which included skirts, were much less form-fitting than today’s leotards and tights). Subscribers could, and did, go backstage to ogle women. Due to their social status, they were free to socialize with them, too.
“Epic scenes took place backstage,” wrote the Comte de Maugny, who described the foyer de la danse as a kind of meat market. For subscribers, backstage was a kind of men’s club where they could meet and greet other power brokers, make business deals and bask in a highly sexualized atmosphere.
For dancers, though, it was a place where they were subject to scrutiny and harassment. Dancers were expected to submit to the attentions and affections of subscribers, most of whom were nobleman and important financiers and whose money underwrote the majority of the opera’s operations.
Since subscribers were so powerful, they could influence who made it into coveted roles and who was fired from the ballet. They could lift a girl out of poverty by becoming her “patron,” or client, setting her up in comfortable quarters and paying for private lessons that could increase her cachet in the ballet. Often, girls’ own mothers—who acted not unlike entertainment agents today—helped set up and maintain these relationships. For many Paris Opera ballerinas from poor backgrounds, a relationship with a rich man was their only chance at stability.
Some dancers managed to advance without a rich patron, becoming celebrities on the merits of their own abilities, notes historian Lorraine Coons. But even those dancers who did succeed independently were looked down on as suspected prostitutes.
One influential Parisian couldn’t afford the expensive subscription that allowed special access to ballerinas: Impressionist painter Edgar Degas. During the 1870s and 1880s, he produced hundreds of drawings and paintings of Paris Opera dancers, relying on his friends to secure backstage passes so he could sketch the dancers in their habitat. There, he recorded behind-the-scenes views of dancers practicing—and captured glimpses of the world of the lecherous male subscribers, too.
One of Degas’ best-known works is his Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, a life-sized statue of a teenage “petit rat,” or ballet dancer in training. To modern eyes, it’s the portrait of a child who eagerly awaits her next dance step. But when Degas exhibited it in 1881, it was panned by the critics, who called the dancer “frightfully ugly,” monkey-like, and “marked by the hateful promise of every vice.”
Degas’ subject may have been vulnerable, but for 19th-century observers, she was marked by the sordidness of the sexual harassment that was baked into ballet. Teenager Marie van Goethem, a Paris Opera petit rat who modeled for the sculpture, likely traded sex for money in order to survive—but even if she hadn’t, it’s almost certain Degas’ audience would have assumed she did.