Sunday, 6 August 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Ballet Secrets

Ballet Books:


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE TUTUS



.Ballet Buttons 4


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.


Ballet buttons 1



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…



Ballet buttons 2



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 Ballet Buttons 3me,’ 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.







31 comments:

  1. This is so interesting; I'd only ever come across it in Michael Green's fantastic 'The Art of Coarse Acting' where he devotes half a page to saggy (usually Shakesperean) tights, and mentions that if you use pennies, the waist band stretches until it could comfortably fit a hippo. I'd never been able to imagine how it was actually done, though.... (he also mentions coins clattering to the stage during sword fights)

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    1. So glad you mentioned that - I had completely forgotten that, so it adds to the post. But also, having taken it off the shelf (and forced myself to stop reading after a couple of pages) I am looking forward to re-reading it later. Such a hysterically funny book, I am laughing just thinking about it.

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    2. Not to derail this wonderful post, but Coarse Acting is a favorite in our [theatrical] household.

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  2. I have to admit, Moira, this whole thing about pennies is new to me. It's interesting, too! Those little 'tricks of the trade' can be half the fun of going 'behind the scenes.'

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    1. Yes, I do love a detail, particularly one that hasn't been written down much.

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  3. Sounds like a variation on old fashioned garter grips, with pennies and elastic taking the place of the metal and rubber fasteners.

    https://img0.etsystatic.com/042/0/6386235/il_340x270.617961754_dc8v.jpg

    I remember wearing long woolly stockings and a garter belt during the winter I when I was about eleven years old...thank heavens by the time I got to junior high school two years later, pantyhose (aka tights) were plentiful and affordable.

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    1. They were, but suspenders (as we call them in the UK) were in full use everywhere else at the time of these references. I think it must be to do with the appearance of the costume: suspenders and suspender belts were OK under a longer skirt, but a different solution required for the vagaries of costume.

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    2. That's what I was thinking, too, but, you're right, you can't wear a garter belt under a tutu!

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    3. No, it would show far too much...

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  4. Women used to do something similar back in the days of stockings and suspender belts - you can finns references to it in books from the 1940s/50s and I think I have seen it in old black and white films. Sometimes (apparently) the little button-like metal (later rubber) part was lost, and then you would replace it with a coin.

    Now that I think about it, though, I realise that in describing this I am taking it for granted that suspenders always looked like they did just when they went out of fashion in the 1960s, when I was just old enough to experience them briefly before tights took over completely. But I also remember having seen yards of plain white elastic with buttonholes (one every 5-10 cm roughly if I remember correctly) in my mother's sewing box. I never asked what it was for, but it just dawns upon me that it must have been suspender/garter elastic - and that earlier suspenders probably consisted of a length of this "buttonholed" elastic together with a length of ribbon with an ordinary button on it - all of it coming down from some kind of corset-like garment for adult women and from a cotton vest for little girls. Losing that button must have been a fairly common mishap and this is where the coin would come in handy. (It would have been handy also for the dancers in your first extract to use this kind of elastic, as they would only have had to button it on to the penny, but this does not seem to be what is happening.)

    As a little girl in Sweden in the 1950s with a very modern and practical mother I mostly wore trousers, and on the very few occasions when I was wearing a dress in winter and so required something to keep my legs warm, I had the kind of tights which already existed for children - rather thick, usually in navy or red or white, made from cotton, I think (definitely not wool, which would have been itchy and I was very sensitive to itchy so I would have remembered). They were sturdy and practical and quite comfortable, but elegant they were not, and oh, how I longed for the 'rite de passage' of nylon stockings and a suspender belt! But when I was finally old enough for this wonderful sophistication, it was the 1960s, miniskirts were in and - horrors! - everyone now wore the boring, practical tights of my childhood, just slightly jazzed up for adults. I felt cheated all through my teens. In my twenties I started my own little rebellion by secretly wearing real stockings with a suspender belt, but these things were difficult to find by then and it was considered so decidedly odd that I had to keep it a secret. Now, of course, we can all indulge in stayups/holdups which are as thin and smooth as the old nylons but much more stretchy and with a pretty lacy part at the top - hallelujah!

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment Birgitta, what you have to say is fascinating. I love the elastic with the holes in -isn't it funny the things we take for granted, and when we start to think about it later in life if it is like a different world. And, exactly, something many people would have known about, but was never written down or pictured.
      Somewhere, I remember reading of someone replacing the suspender button with an aspirin or similar - doesn't sound very practical, but it was propbably a metahphor in a novel!

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    2. In the UK many women I speak with say they used a Mint Imperial sweet, or a sixpence (that's the posh lot, obviously!) Thanks for a fascinating bit of costume history

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    3. Oh that's a great detail thanks - a sweet somehow better than an aspirin! I wonder if a farthing was the right size too?

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    4. Isn't it fascinating how we can store away a memory and take it out of storage decades later when something triggers it? The elastic with buttonholes must have confused me, I suppose, but as is so often the case with children, I never thought to actually ask what it was for. And I haven't thought about it for some 50 years - it wasn't a memory I was aware of having, as it were, until I started thinking of suspender belts and the use of coins, and suddenly I remembered the buttonhole elastic and had this epiphany realising what it must have been for.

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    5. That's lovely - and what a great demonstration of the way memory works. I'm glad to have been part of reminding you!

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    6. I remember the elastic with holes in it as being a way to adjust the waistband on maternity clothes. I'm about the same age as the other commentators - a brief flirtation with stockings and suspenders belts before the sixties mini fashions whisked them all away!

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    7. Oh, the sweet might have worked in a cold climate, but here it would turn into a sticky mess. Ick.

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    8. Cherry: yes, I'd forgotten that about maternity clothes. And yes, I can just remember. I can also remember reading in a girls' magazine some advice on Christmas presents. It said 'give your Mum some tights, save her from draughty old stockings'.
      Paula, that's hilarious about the sweets, surely could be a good sitcom moment.

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  5. Well, I wore tights or stockings with a garter belt.

    Why do so many conversations end up discussing garter belts in our young womanhood.

    Do I see Paula swooping in with a comment?

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    1. You made me laugh into my coffee this morning with this comment Kathy! it is a subject of endless interest...

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    2. Ha. Hi, Kathy!

      Yep, I was very, very happy to give up garter belts and stockings for panty hose.

      P.S. I have was having serious ISP issues (finally kicked them to the curb, and now I'm catching up all at once).

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    3. Phew - you're not allowed to go offline Paula!

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    4. Oh, I'm so glad you didn't say "Gee, we didn't miss you at all." Hee.

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  6. My Aunt Pauline Tish was a modern dancer who switched to teaching. But she was beautiful in her costume. I tried to copy her photo but it didn't work. I'll try again.

    She was in the modern dance world and knew all of the dancers.



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    1. Oh I would love to hear more about your aunt and see a picture. What a fascinating life she must have led.

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  7. I'll email you her obituary and what I see about her. I just found an article about her by one of her former students.

    She was one of my favorite people, could still touch her toes and daily walk up and down her terrible staircase in Greenwich Village. She knew everyone in the neighborhood.

    I still miss her and she died 15 years ago at nearly 90.

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    1. How nice - thanks, I will respond to your email.

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  8. Fascinating. I am glad I came back after all the comments. All very interesting.

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    1. Wasn't just? I love it when the comments really add to the post!

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  9. This is something I always wanted to know--I had often read references to "gartering" dance hose, but couldn't visualize how they'd do it. I'd often think about it when I watch dancers in early movies--we seem to be seeing such a smooth line all the way up.

    Somebody needs to write the history of wearing dance wear!

    BTW, when I started wearing hose they still had seams, and were shaped wider at the calves and thighs--it was tricky to figure out your size, and many of us went around with wrinkles and bags behind our knees and around our tween-aged spindly ankles. No amount of tightness in the garters could smooth those ugly '50's "nylons" out.

    Slightly off-topic, but I seem to remember a bio of Martha Graham describing one of her company's early dances. They wore long gowns of some newly-invented knit, and the voluminous skirts kept stretching because of their own weight, so every couple of performances they had to snip an inch off all of their hems.

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