Marie, Dancing

Marie, Dancing
by Carolyn Meyer

Publishing Information: Harcourt: Orlando, Fla., 2005
ISBN: 0152051163 / 052058796 (PB)
Pages: 255 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

A fictionalized autobiography of Marie Van Goethem, the impoverished student from the Paris Opera ballet school who became the model for Edgar Degas's famous sculpture, "The Little Dancer."

Book Talk:
In Marie, Dancing, Marie van Goethem, a fourteen-year-old ballet dancer in the famed Paris Opera, has led a life of hardship and poverty. For her, dancing is the only joy to counter the pain inflicted by hunger, her mother's drinking, and her selfish older sister. But when famed artist Edgar Degas demands Marie's presence in his studio, it appears that her life will be transformed: He will pay her to pose for a new sculpture, and he promises to make her a star.

As Marie patiently stands before Mr. Degas each week, she dreams about supporting her family without being corrupted like most young dancers. She dreams about a life as a ballerina on the stage of the Opera. And she dreams about being with her true love.

In this deeply moving, historically based account, Carolyn Meyer examines the life of the model for Edgar Degas's most famous sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. (from the publisher)

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Artists and Models
Ballet Dancing
Cassett, Mary (1844-1926)
Coming of Age
Degas, Edgar (1834-1917)
Paris, France
Paris Opera Ballet (Ballet de l'Opera de Paris)
van Goethem, Marie Genevieve (1865-?)

Awards & Reviews:
Gr. 6-9. In this historical novel, readers meet a character humbler than the noblewomen of Meyer's Young Royals series but iconic in her own way: the dancer who modeled for Degas' statuette Little Dancer--14 Years Old. Building on facts known about Marie van Goethem, Meyer imagines Marie as the most levelheaded of three sisters, Paris Opera dancers all. Marie vows never to sink to courtesanship, as her frivolous elder sister does, nor to abuse absinthe like her mother. By the time the sculpture is unveiled, four years after she models for Degas, her innocent dreams of stardom have been compromised by family obligations. Readers drawn to historical fiction for lavish, romantic costume drama more than gritty realism may find the story a bit harsh, but the novel scrupulously adheres to the "truth is beauty" philosophy that inspired Degas to sculpt a gangly, somber dancer and call it art. Phrases in French are smoothly integrated, and an author's note separates fact from fiction. A photo of the sculpture appears on the back of the jacket.-- Jennifer Mattson
Booklist , November 1, 2005, p56

Gr 6-8 This is a fictionalized account of the inspiration for Degas's famous statue, "The Little Dancer." Young Marie van Goethem and her two sisters are students at the Paris Opera Ballet. Their mother envisions this as their only hope to get out of their destitute life. The oldest sister, Antoinette, is soon being wined and dined by wealthy men who often pursue the young dancers. Marie, the responsible one, is trying to deal with her mother's alcoholism and care for her younger sister, Charlotte. When Degas chooses Marie to pose for his sculpture both in the nude and costumed, the extra money is only a temporary solution. Eventually Antoinette and Marie are dismissed from the Paris Opera for failing to adhere to the strict rules. Charlotte continues and, with Marie's support, succeeds. Marie finds contentment as she marries and finds joy in her younger sister's success. This is a fairly realistic look at the difficult lives of poor French girls who had few ways to escape their poverty and often discovered that the pursuit of their dreams was fraught with dangerous choices and obstacles. The introduction of Degas and Mary Cassatt enriches the historical interest of this well-written story. Marie's determination and resilience make her an appealing character, and her willingness to try to keep her family intact and support them through their difficulties is believable and admirable. --Carol Schene, Taunton Public Schools, MA
School Library Journal , November 2005, p142

Kirkus Reviews: The Paris of Degas and the Impressionists was a vibrant and exciting time of artistic accomplishment. One of the most beloved works of art from this time is Degas' sculpture of "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen." From what little is known about the model, a student at the Paris Opera Ballet named Marie Van Goethem, Meyer has fashioned a story of a young dancer who models for Degas to offset the extreme poverty of her home life. Her older sister, also a dancer, is more intent on finding a man who will provide her with an apartment and jewels. Their mother works in a laundry when not falling down drunk from partaking of too much absinthe to drown her own sorrows. Readers with an interest in ballet will find fascinating insights into the strict world of the late 19th-century Parisian ballet. As striking is the juxtaposition of a ballet dancer holding a still pose for the sculpture. Her modeling leads to a fascination with Degas' art and that of Mary Cassatt, a friend of Degas, while her love interests and her unwillingness to become a mistress of a rich man add flavor to the tale. (Fiction 12+)
Kirkus Reviews , October 1, 2005

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What is the allure of the Paris Opera for the young dancers? What rewards does it offer?
  2. What are the dangers and snares of the dancer's life? How many of the 'Petits Rats' succeeded and lived their dreams?
  3. Why is Marie so determined to succeed at the Paris Opera dance school? What drives her?
  4. Carolyn Meyer describes many real places including the Rat Mort and Martyrs Tavern, many activities like riding the omnibus and boating in the park, and dazzling new technology such as electric lights banishing the dark of night. Discuss how all these things worked in the book to heighten the contrast between the rich and the poor.
  5. We don't know what became of the real Marie after the Paris Opera dismissed her. Does the ending of Marie, Dancing satisfy you? Would you prefer a happier or darker ending? Should she have held onto her dream of a life with Jean-Pierre? Consider the choices presented her in the book. What might you have done?

Interesting Article :
In 1997 curators at Paris's Musee d'Orsay asked the Ballet de l'Opera de Paris to restore the fragile tulle skirt on Edgar Degas's most famous work: "La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans." That was when the ballet's in-house historian, Martine Kahane, realized she knew nothing about Marie Van Goethem, the knobby-kneed teenager who had posed for the sculpture.

Kahane soon discovered the girl's dance career was short and tragic. "[It was] like something out of Emile Zola," says the opera's ballet master, Patrice Bart. Kahane recounted the tale to the ballet's director, Brigitte Lefevre, who was so moved she commissioned Bart to create a full-length ballet based on it. The three-act work, "La Petite Danseuse de Degas," runs through May 9 [2003] at Paris's Palais Garnier....

Van Goethem may have disappeared more than a century ago, but her early life lives on in the theater where she learned to dance.

--Thomas, Dana. "A New Life for Degas's Young Dancer. (Ballet de l'Opera de Paris creates new ballet)." Newsweek International May 5, 2003 p52

Related Websites:
Author's Website -

Schumacher, Mary Louise. "Degas' dancers have stories to tell." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel . 13 February 2005. JS Online. April 12, 2007 -

"The Precise Objectivity of Hilaire Germanin Edgar Degas." Humanities Web . 9 July 2006. Ed. Katya Gifford. April 12, 2007 -

"The Dance Lesson by Edgar Degas." National Gallery of Art . 2007. National Gallery of Art. April 12, 2007 -

Gifford, Katya. "Degas, (Hilaire-Germain-) Edgar." WebMuseum, Paris . Nicolas Pioch. 15 October 2006. Ibiblio. April 12, 2007 -

"Private Collection: Profile - Mary Cassatt."  National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2007. National Museum of Women in the Arts. April 12, 2007 -

Gifford, Katya. "Mary Cassatt - Transcending Conventional Expectations." WebMuseum, Paris. Nicolas Pioch -

Another Way to Dance by Martha Southgate, 1996
A Dance of Sisters by Tracey Porter, 2002

Dancer by Lorri Hewett, 1999
I'd Rather Be Dancing by Mary E. Ryan, 1989

Just Like Jenny by Sandy Asher, 1982
The Kings Are Already Here by Garret Freymann-Weyr
Maybe Next Year... by Amy Hest, 1982
The Melting Season by Celeste Conway, 2006

On Pointe by Lori e Ann Grover, 2004
Poopsie Pomerantz, Pick Up Your Feet by Patricia Reilly Giff, 1989
A Time for Dancing by Davida Hurwin, 1995

Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas by Norma Broude, 1993
Edgar Degas Susan E. Meyer, 1994

Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt by Susan E. Meyer, 1990.
Mary Cassatt: Portrait of an American by Tom Streissguth, 1999.

Other Books by the Author:
The Summer I Learned About Life, 1983
The Luck of Texas McCoy, 1984
Elliott and Win, 1986
Denny's Tapes, 1987
Killing the Kudu, 1990
Gillian's Choice, 1991
The Two Faces of Adam, 1991
Where the Broken Heart Still Beats, 1992
White Lilacs, 1993
Rio Grande Stories, 1994
Drummers of Jericho, 1995
Gideon's People, 1996
Jubilee Journey, 1997
Mary, Bloody Mary, 1999
Anasatasia: The Last Grand Duchess, 2000
Isabel: The Jewel of Castilla, 2000
Beware, Princess Elizabeth, 2001
Doomed Queen Anne, 2002
Brown Eyes Blue, 2003
Kristina: The Girl King, 2003
Patience, Princess Catherine, 2004
Loving Will Shakespeare, 2006

About the Author:
Carolyn Meyer is the award-winning author of more than forty books for young people, including White Lilacs and Mary, Bloody Mary. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That's not telling us much but you will find plenty more when you visit her publisher's Marie, Dancing pages. There is an interview Interview with the author regarding Marie, Dancing, an extended biography, an excerpt from the book, and more about Degas's Sculpture. (

She maintains the Website of Carolyn Meyer , where she dishes out tons of information. "I started to write my first novel when I was 8 years old, HUMPY THE CATERPILLAR AND GLADYS THE SNAIL: A TRUE LIFE ROMANCE. (But I finished only 3 chapters.)" It is amazing what she divulges about herself, with good humor. You won't believe how brave she is. Wait to you see her middle school photo! (