LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE TUTUS
Noel Streatfeild/Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette, on the blog on Friday, is about the older lives of young women at ballet school. It’s a book aimed at adults, but it took me back to the stories I read as a young adult: Streatfeild’s books were my favourites, but there wasn’t an endless supply, so I read others, such as the one below. I couldn’t remember the title or author, just had some shadowy idea that there was a mystery to be solved (aha! early attraction to crime fiction, the joy of my grown-up years) – and a memory of one very peculiar passage. I could recall it very clearly because it was so odd.
A modest amount of rootling around on the internet gave me the title, and a second-hand copy was soon heading my way. I enjoyed reading it again, and was really pleased to find the passage – and to find it made no more sense now than it did then. I had no idea what the girls were doing with their silk legwear, the elastic and the pennies, I couldn’t visualize it at all:
The Ballet School Mystery Constance B White[the pupils at the ballet school are getting ready for a dancing exam]
“Janice, I hope you have the coins for the tights?”
“Yes, Madame.” Janice opened a bag and disclosed a handful of pennies, which she distributed.
Off came the panama hats, the blazers and cotton frocks. On went the silk tights, each to be fastened securely with pennies and yards of elastic. Under the thin silk at the top of each leg went a penny, a twist round with elastic, then up to the waist, round and down again to another penny; four in all. Not a wrinkle must be seen on this great occasion. Last of all, on went the brief white fluffy-skirted tutus with their satin bodices moulding the figure.
“It’s just like trussing up a fowl”” grumbled Sonia. “I shall be surprised if I can plie at all!"
“What would you, child? Have the legs looking like concertinas?” Madame shrugged her shoulders expressively.
I couldn’t find any real information about this business, but I did find references to it in two other books. This first one seems to be a how-to book about putting on a show - Marguerite Steen, Peepshow:
You lay the penny inside your tights a little below your waist level, and give it a firm twist so that the stuff is bunched into a short neck, and the penny looks like a button. Now pull your elastic down and give it a simple twist round the ‘neck’ of your penny which it will hold in position by its own tightness. Repeat this process at each side and in the middle of your back (someone else has to help you there), and when the elastic is looped round the four pennies, your tights ought to be quite steady and show no wrinkles from top to toe. Do not, however, sit down if you can help it until you go on the stage because the material is bound to give a little…
The next one comes from The Making of Markova: Diaghilev's Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon by Tina Sutton – a biography of the dancer Alicia Markova. This is in the early days:
As Markova’s feet were so tiny, the stockings needed to be hiked up, stitched to a makeshift belt, and somehow affixed to her waist. She remembered an old pantomime costume trick of sewing pennies inside a waistband, as the weight in a tightly-tied sash kept the legs from bagging. Guggy finished stitching her in just before she took to the stage.
‘It seemed a very precarious business to me,’ Markova laughingly recalled. ‘I went on far more nervous of whether the pennies would drop out, than whether I should remember the difficult routine I had to dance. Sure enough, on the first lift in the pas de deux there was a dreadful clang, and I trembled, not daring to look down. Imagine my relief when I saw that it was my partner Efimov’s belt. I really should not have been so relieved as he used this to keep up his tights and the catastrophe was much worse!’He had to leave the stage, while she danced on her own till he could return.
So I’m guessing that this is one of those things that every dancer (and many other performers) would have known all about – but they took it for granted, and it was never pictured or described, being what we would now call a hack. Presumably the arrival of lycra and similar developments made all this unnecessary.
The two line drawings were the nearest I could find to showing how it worked, but I don’t know that I’m much the wiser for seeing them. I’m hoping that perhaps the ballerina adjusting her tights in the picture is doing so with some coins…
… and I’m hoping even more that one of my knowledgeable readers may be able to add something to my meagre knowledge of this.
The picture of a ballerina adjusting her tights is by Toulouse Lautrec.
Picture is of Markova, from the NYPL.