A Slippery Slope: the Twelve Dancing Princesses

SONY DSCWhat is it about shoes?

Of all the objects in fairy tales, magical or otherwise, shoes are the most iconic. Who can forget Cinderella’s glass slipper, the titular Boots of the ingenious Puss, or the alluring, alas devastating, Red Shoes. In different times, Hermes had his winged sandals and Dorothy her ruby slippers; but they all imply the same thing – wear them and you become something different, something more than what you were. They will empower and transform you and take you places you’ve never been before. With them you become more alive, more beautiful, more everything.

But in the Twelve Dancing Princesses the slippers are worn out, danced to pieces. They’ve lost their soles or are full of holes. There’s wear and tear and mystery, of course, but no magic. So what is it about these particular shoes?

Although there are many versions of this tale, the plot outline is pretty much the same. A King is flummoxed by his daughters, or to be more accurate, by their shoes. Each night the girls are locked in their room and every morning there is a new set of soiled and spoiled dancing slippers that no one can explain.

In each case, the woeful state of the shoes is the catalyst for the story. There are princesses, usually a lot of them, sometimes three, sometimes six but the most well known number is twelve. One or two versions have a single girl but she makes up for the difference by destroying twelve pairs of shoes in a single night! These ladies are maddeningly reticent about how the damage is done and their father, the King, in great exasperation, advertises that whoever can solve the riddle of the shoes will have one of his daughters to wife.

We know what happened to the shoes just from reading the title. So the mystery for us is not what’s happening but how or maybe more importantly, why. The ladies aren’t telling and no one can find a clue. All the young men, who present themselves for the challenge, either disappear or end up dead. And the pile of worn out shoes continues to grow.

Eventually, there will come the guy – you know, the one who’s different from all the rest. In some cases, he’s a wounded soldier, whose injuries have left him unfit for fighting. In others he’s a poor lad who yearns to flee the hard work of country life and aspires to something larger. Whatever the description, the guy is adrift, no longer able to do what he did. He leaves his past and travels along the way until he meets the helper. One might expect this magical guide to be the classic one, an old hag or crone, but it’s different in each of the versions. Sometimes it’s a woman, sometimes it’s an old man, or in one case, St. Peter himself. Gender doesn’t seem to matter so much as age. In a similar way, the guidance doesn’t necessarily come as a reward for a kind word or deed; in many versions the gifts are bestowed for free.

The magical helper provides our guy with the proper fairy tale advice, most notably “don’t drink the wine.” Then outfits him with the key tool for the job – invisibility. So our guy – the putative hero of the story – the man who can no longer function in his own world, armed by unknown and unearned magical forces, sets out to solve the riddle of these exasperatingly wayward females and their mysterious nightly romps.

So let’s talk about those girls. They’re beautiful, of course, and demure as can be, at least during the daylight hours. As for the shoes, dear Daddy, why they have no idea. They profess indifference to their father’s plan and, at least for the reader, reveal a chilling disregard for the poor saps who come to their door. If they are under a spell they’re in active collusion with it and waste neither time nor mercy in protecting their enterprise. In short, they’re smart, manipulative, proactive and determined to keep whatever it is they have.

Their interests are fully engaged by something that happens only at night and only in their bedroom. Care to take a guess? The obvious response is sex, secret sex at that, and the before-and-after state of the shoes – the ubiquitous emblem for sexual allure – suggests the same. But, I grew up with this story in a time when young children didn’t know anything about that word. The substitute term was Romance and the dresses and the jewels and those lovely slippers were all the accoutrements a young reader could want. More importantly, romance for young children – whether active heroic adventures like Jack and his Beanstalk or Barbie dressed as a princess – is all part of an inner fantasy life that all children share.

Let’s look at some of the plot details. Each night the princesses are locked in their bedroom. At the appointed hour they rise, dress in their finest and line up one behind the other at the bed of the eldest. That bed, upon command, sinks into the ground and reveals a long staircase that descends into wondrous landscapes. The ladies proceed through magical forests of ever increasing value, first trees of silver then gold and finally diamonds. They arrive at a great lake where boats await them, each outfitted with a handsome prince who will ferry them across to a magical castle and a great Ball. Then the dancing begins.

You remember our guy. He’s presented himself to the King, and despite the King’s sadness that yet another young man will lose his life over this unending riddle, he lets our guy take his turn guarding the girls. They offer him the same soporific that all the other would-be heroes have gladly taken. Having been forewarned he’ll manage to tip it out and feign the deep sleep that the ladies intend. Once they start to leave he uses his invisibility to follow them down into their magical subterranean world. The rest is standard fairy tale stuff. He takes tokens from all the bejeweled trees and uses his invisibility to tease them at the Ball, stealing their food or making off with their cups or spoons.

The story gets interesting at the beginning of the journey when he oversteps himself and the youngest feels a tug on her dress. She expresses her concern that someone may be following them, but the eldest, despite her cunning and intelligence up to then, dismisses the young girl’s fears. Several times during the journey, our guy breaks off a bejeweled twig, which causes a loud crack. Each time the youngest is again alarmed and each time the eldest denies the possibility. She, the eldest, is too eager to get to the Ball. She asserts her authority over the youngest with all the confidence that comes of age and their enduring success. They’d been getting away with this for a long, long time and too many men have been foiled when attempting to uncover their secret life. As their leader, why wouldn’t she believe they were safe?

The story ends with the usual reveal – in the face of his own imminent death, the hero states his findings to the King and the ladies continue to demur until the magical tokens are shown. When asked to secure his reward and choose a wife, the old soldier says, “I am no longer young, so give me the eldest.” The wedding is celebrated on the very same day and that, as they say, is that.

But is it?

When I read fairy tales as a kid I always fell headlong into them. I could be captured by a sentence and spend weeks on a paragraph. The stories stayed with me and I explored them with all my might – questions, doubts, wonderings still came years after my first reading. Much, much later I realized that the longer the questions lasted the deeper the resonance. If I cared when I was six and still cared at sixty then there was something in it that was meant for me.

As an adult I would sometimes hear women speak about fairy tales in disparaging terms. They were angry that the tales were sexist or were intended to instill social norms or maintain the (male) hierarchical order. They hated the objectification of women and I’d have to guess a lot of them would not have liked the Twelve Dancing Princesses. After all, at the end of the story, you’re left with the feeling that the King has succeeded, order has been restored and the nightly revels are done. The girls have been outsmarted, lost their magical subterranean kingdom and their eldest has been treated like a trophy and handed over as a reward. Despite their intelligence, cunning and proactive behavior they have been found out. All seems lost.

Who wouldn’t hate that?

But that’s not the way it felt to me. I wasn’t rooting for the king or the soldier, but I wasn’t sorry the girls were caught either. Something else was going on, although I didn’t have the understanding to know just what was at stake. I had to grow up to find the words.

In my childhood, gender meant nothing to me. And, in fairy tales, it still doesn’t. When people say the g-word in my classes I see how the energy behind those weighted terms – male-female, active-passive, powerful-weak – has thrown them out of the story. I ask them to consider a less fraught way of seeing these events.

If we replace the notion of masculine/feminine with the concept of Yin-Yang, what do we get?

Yin-Yang is a very ancient, gender-neutral way of looking at the world. It is a philosophy that recognizes that polar opposites are in fact complementary. You can’t have one without the other and together they form a dynamic system. With Yin-Yang the whole is both indivisible and greater than the sum of its parts. Each force contains the seeds of the other. Without this there would be no transformative possibilities. As Yang grows and expands it eventually leads to Yin. As Yin retreats and diminishes it will in turn, lead back to Yang. The circle continues. Problems arise when there is no harmony, no balance, when there is too much or too little of one of these great forces.

The Yin represents what we typically think of as feminine – interior, receptive and hidden. It is the dark side of the ancient symbol. Yin is often associated with the Moon and with activities done only at night. Yin energy is sensitive and intuitive, tied to thoughtfulness and rest, and at it’s extreme, death.

Yang energy is active, forceful, extroverted and anchored towards the light. It belongs to the daylight hours and seeks engagement with the world. It is creative and aligned with growth and new life.

In our story, the soldier is wounded Yang. No longer fit for the active life, he moves inexorably toward our twelve sisters and their excess of Yin. The princesses live in the dark underground realms of night. They are secretive and love their hidden life. All their actions and creativity (Yang) is in service to their nighttime lives (Yin).  They care nothing for the daytime, their father or any of the young Yang-ful men who strive to learn their secret. That these men should die or become imprisoned forever, serving as mere dancing partners in the nighttime revels of this fantasy life, is a great source of amusement to them.

These girls are seriously out of whack.

It is telling that the youngest is the only one who expresses misgivings or doubts. One could say that she is the least experienced in this fantasy business and is only following the lead of her older and more hardened sisters.

Living a fantasy life is a slippery slope. In ordinary life we all have a daydreaming side. We use it to cope with the everyday, to find solace, escape and consolation. There, in that imaginary world, we are triumphant on our job, we meet the perfect mate and we win every argument. The essay in my head is always brilliant, will amaze millions and bring me fame and fortune. Most likely, it will also never get finished because Fantasy sours the real. Ordinary life pales in comparison and can’t compete. I can never be as smart, beautiful, talented or witty as in my dreams.

What I’ve discovered is that the longer we spend time in that fantasy life the less willing we are to live in the real one. It sets a bar that can’t be reached by mere mortals and we stop trying. Fantasy is seductive and addictive. Worse, it’s crippling. Our ladies have been too long at the fair…

Those slippers are the giveaway. Shoes are the point where we touch the earth and these shoes are damaged and useless. The more pragmatic of my students think the King is upset because these slippers are costly, but perhaps he senses that his daughters are no longer grounded and are in great danger. There is no mother figure in these tales, no Queen to guide these young women in their struggle with Yin and Yang. They are on their own and becoming lost to themselves. If their nighttime fantasies are not ended soon, they will be doomed to stay princesses forever. For what is a princess, but an immature girl, a woman who hasn’t reached her full, queenly potential, who remains untried and incomplete and withdrawn from the world.

Our soldier has an equally fraught journey to make. Having lost access to his Yang world he passively accepts the mysterious tools and advice of an older magical helper and heads for the castle. There, he finds the remains of all the powerful and active men who preceded him to their untimely deaths. Potent reminders indeed – Yang is not his best option. He succeeds only by becoming invisible, a Yin trait, that allows him to enter the feminine fantasy life and discover the girls’ secrets. In those realms, he proactively steals tokens from the fantastic forests. Each time the trees make a telltale crack and alert the youngest princess that there is a different kind of energy in the air.

Yin and Yang transform each other. There is an ebb and flow that is constant and ever changing. With the rise of one there is a fall of the other and the dance continues. When the soldier and the princess are united in marriage new possibilities and new life can arise. There’s is a match made in Heaven.

Now that’s a dance worth fighting for…