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My Writer's Journal

Behind the Books: Marie, Dancing

Marie, Dancing - 2005
File this one under "Where ideas come from." During a visit in 2002 to my oldest son and his family in Rochester, NY, we went to an exhibit of work by French artist Edgar Degas, famous for his paintings of ballet dancers. I was captivated by a small bronze sculpture dressed in a real muslin tutu and wearing actual ballet shoes, her hair tied with a real silk ribbon. The girl is not portrayed as an ethereal beauty--she's a bony kid. It was titled "Petite danseuse de quatorze ans"--Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The label offered a bit more information: the model was a dancer named Marie van Goethem who sometimes posed for Degas in Paris in the 1880s. The sculpture was the only one Degas exhibited in his lifetime, and it was highly controversial at that time because of its frank realism.

Not much was known about Marie or her sisters, but I was struck by the sculpture and the scraps of information about her. Marie "danced" into my life at a time when I was feeling I had said enough about princesses and queens and longed to write about young women who didn't live in castles or wear tons of jewels or have to deal with royal male egos, mistresses, and temper tantrums.

Research for MARIE, DANCING was a joy. I sat in on ballet classes. I read the novels of Emile Zola and made great use of the Parisian setting of his lugubrious "Therese Raquin." And finally I went to Paris, to visit the Opera where Marie danced, to walk the street where Degas had his studio, to sit in the park across from the apartment building where Mary Cassatt lived. It doesn't get any better than that.

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