Twelve Dancing Princesses

Once upon a time, there was a queen, and she had twelve daughters. Because it was a small kingdom, and because the queen was a practical woman, the twelve princesses shared one bedroom.

One morning, when the servants came into the princesses’ bedroom to wake them for the morning, they discovered the their shoes were worn down to threads. The castle cobbler made new shoes for each of the sisters that very day, so that they wouldn’t be without proper shoes for too long.

But the next morning, the servants discovered these, too, were nothing more than scraps of leather, hardly worthy of a beggar, never mind a princess. The queen began to fear that a witch had put a spell on her daughters’ shoes, although she couldn’t imagine why — the kingdom was so small, it was hardly large enough to offend anybody — but witches are one of the dangers of being royalty, and the queen was prepared. She paid one of the servant boys twelve gold coins to hide in the princesses’ room and see what magic occurred while they slept.

The boy hid in the princesses’ rather over-stuffed closet, and waited for nightfall. He waited until no light came from under the door, nor no noise from the room, as he was an honorable boy and did not want to see the princesses undressing. (Also, the queen had promised that any gentleman who intruded on her daughters in a state of undress would have his eyes fed to the pigs.) To his astonishment, the princesses were not asleep.

One by one they got out of bed, and one by one they put on their shoes, and one by one they climbed out the window. When the last princess had slipped away into the night the boy hurried out of the closet and to the window. He leaned as far as he could out the window and watched as the princesses danced away from the castle in the summer night.

This is the story I had in mind as I set out to with model Yana Vertkin to create these ethereal images. Yana and I had never worked together before, and here we were, stood a few blocks from Harvard Square with her in a leotard and a dressing gown. Fortunately for me, Yana is a natural in front of the camera. Together we explored the story of the twelve dancing princesses, and what it means to be a young woman dancing in the street, and I think we only startled a few passers-by.

The story of the twelve dancing princesses has been on my list of fairy tales for a while, not only for the potential visual imagery. The story is one of adolescence. In some versions, the princesses are outright defiant; in others, they are victims of a spell cast by malicious young men. The question of agency, combined with the strong signifier of dancing, made this a concept I couldn’t ignore. When I found Yana – a local student and trained ballerina – through my newsletter, I knew it was time to let this story out of the box.

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