The Dance Class by Edgar Degas (1874)

In The Dance Class, Edgar Degas depicts a beautifully candid scene of urban leisure in 19th century Paris. Here, unlike in many of his other explorations of ballerinas and their craft, he does not focus on the great whirl of movement and colour created by the dancers. Rather, the artist explores the form of the ballerina in her brief moments of respite, when her elegance is superseded by the ungraceful realism of human gesture.

Notice how ungainly virtually all of the ballerinas appear, with the exception of the dancer in the center. Most have their faces obscured or their backs to us, one has her fingers in her mouth, while the dancer in the immediate foreground even appears to be hiking up her tutu. Scenes of such prosaic normality rejected the art of history and heroes that would have pervaded the Parisian art scene before and during this period, making Degas something of a radical for his 19th century audience. For not only was the artist depicting ordinary citizens, here he examines these citizens in their most ordinary state – tired, often disinterested, and ultimately, inelegant.

However, it is undeniable that this prosaic quality only furthers the beauty of the painting. The natural and unrefined postures of the dancers, with their slumped bodies and flat feet, gives this work a sense of genuine vitality. The authenticity of the scene creates the impression that the artist has invited to quietly peep into this room alongside him, unobserved by those within it. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine the sounds of the room – the gentle rhythmic tap of the stick of the ballet master, or the sound of urban life from the Parisian streets below, or the chatter of female voices… Through the realism of his style, Degas draws his audience into this rehearsal room of the Paris Opéra, and in this privileged position we can contemplate The Dance Class all the more.

Yet although Degas appears to capture an unchoreographed and authentic moment in this piece, this is in fact a highly meticulous and carefully planned work of art. For instance, notice how the eye is transported to the back of the painting by the gentle lightening of the floorboards. Or, how the stark bottom right hand corner of the painting accentuates the vibrancy of the ballerinas and their mothers in its top half. Notice also how via his placement of the mirror on the left, Degas creates an image of the urban world outside this room, further highlighting that this is a distinctly modern, urban scene.

In this way The Dance Class by Edgar Degas stands as a beautiful metaphor for ballet itself – a dance which, when performed best, seems entirely natural and utterly spontaneous, yet is in fact a highly precise, planned and formidable form of artistic expression. As Degas himself said, “No art is less spontaneous than mine.”

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