What You Need at Stage School: Ballet Shoes

the book:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

pulished  1936   chapter 4

[The Fossil sisters are about to go to Madam Fidolia’s Dancing Academy for the first time.]
“…‘I want to wear our muslins’  said Pauline. ‘At Cromwell House [school] girls who learned dancing wore best frocks.’
‘Only for ballroom dancing’  Petrova argued, ‘They wore silk tunics for everything else; we haven’t got those.’
Nana was firm. ‘It’s not a matter of what you’ve got or haven’t got; you’re putting on the smocks and knickers I’ve laid on your beds, so get on with changing while I dress Posy.’
‘Why can’t we wear our muslins?’ Pauline growled.
‘Because for the exercises and that they’re going to see you do, Miss Dane said plain cotton frocks and knickers. When you start on Monday you’re having rompers, two each, black-patent ankle strap shoes, and white tarlatan dresss,  two each, with white sandal shoes, and white knickers, two pairs, all frills -

- so don’t worry me because I’m going to have worries enough getting all that lot made by Monday… What we’ve got would do quite well for dancing in, I should say, but there’s a printed list come, and there’s all that on it, not to mention two rough face-towels for each child, clearly marked, and two special overalls  to be bought through the school. Now you know…”

For the people who love this book, it’s the clothes as much as anything: the lists of what’s needed, the panics over frocks, the audition clothes, and, like a beacon in children’s literature, Pauline’s black velvet dress, bought from Harrods. (Tarlatan was always being mentioned in classic children’s books: it is apparently an open-weave starched muslin.)Money features over and over, exact calculations of how much they have, how much things cost, also detailed descriptions of their time management (as they didn’t call it) and what classes they do. It should be boring as hell, but in fact has kept generations of (mostly) girls enthralled, and some of us continue to read it now and again in adulthood – even those of us who never had any interest in being an actress or a ballerina. (So that makes us Petrova then.)
Ballet Shoes seems a perfectly formed book, a book that could never have been anything else. It is therefore quite shocking to read The Whicharts, Noel Streatfeild’s 1931 novel for adults about three young girls who train for the stage and support the household. The story weaves in and out of Ballet Shoes, but departs radically from it in the talents and morals of the girls as they get older. It is a very enjoyable book, but weirdly uncomfortable to find a story so much about the unsuccessful, and a sister who gets what she wants via men. It’s not just the disorientation, it’s thinking of Noel S taking her failed novel and thinking ‘now how can I change this to try again? Suppose I make the girls NOT illegitimate by-blows of an illicit relationship? Suppose I make  Maimie  not whorish? Suppose I give someone some admirable talent?’  But still, any fan of Ballet Shoes really really should read The Whicharts.
The picture is from the Cornell University Library, and is featured on Flickr.


  1. I am so disappointed! I always thought tarlatan was a plaid material... reading too fast, substituting tartan....

    1. I know just what you mean - I always thought it was a kind of cross between plaid and muslin, with a tartan-style pattern all in white. I could picture it very clearly...

  2. Its really appricaiting work out i am so happy to see this you have very
    beautiful blog about ballet lots of people taking apart of ballet thanks .

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