Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century BallerinasBreaking News
tags: womens history, Sexual Exploitation
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.
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