The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" or "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" or The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces is a German fairy tale originally published by the Brothers Grimm in "Children's and Household Tales" as tale number 133. Charles Deulin collected another, French version in his "Contes du Roi Cambinus" (1874), which he credited to the Grimm version. [Charles Deulin, "Contes du Roi Cambinus" (1874)] Alexander Afanasyev collected a Russian variant, "The Secret Ball", in "Narodnye russkie skazki".

It was retold in Walter de la Mare's "Told Again" and "Tales Told Again" and in Robin McKinley's "The Door in the Hedge".

It is Aarne-Thompson type 306, the danced-out shoes. Its closest analogue is the Scottish "Kate Crackernuts", where it is a prince who is obliged to dance every night. [Maria Tatar, "The Annotated Brothers Grimm", p 330 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4]

Plot summary

Twelve princesses slept in twelve beds in the same room; every night their doors were securely locked, but in the morning their shoes were found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night.

The king, perplexed, promised his kingdom and a daughter to any man who could discover the princesses' secret within three days and three nights, but those who failed within the set time limit would be put to death.

An old soldier returned from war came to the king's call after several princes had failed in the endeavour to discover the princesses' secret. Whilst traveling through a wood he came upon an old woman, who gave him an invisibility cloak and told him not to eat or drink anything given to him by one of the princesses who would come to him in the evening, and to pretend to be fast asleep after the princess left.

The soldier was well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess came to his chamber and offered him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman's advice, threw it away secretly and began to snore very loudly as if asleep.

The princesses, sure that the soldier was asleep, dressed themselves in fine clothes and escaped from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, donned his invisibility cloak and followed them down. He trod on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry to her sisters that all was not right was rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway led them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, broke off a branch from each grove; only the youngest princess heard the noises made, and voiced concerns that the eldest princess again ignored.

They walked on until they came upon a great lake. Twelve boats with twelve princes in them were waiting. Each princess went into one, and the soldier stepped into the same boat as the youngest. The young prince in the boat rowed slowly, unaware that the soldier was causing the boat to be heavy. The youngest princess complained that the prince was not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier was in the boat. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away.

The princesses danced until their shoes were worn through and they were obliged to leave. This strange adventure went on the second and third nights, and everything happened just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carried away a golden cup as a token of where he had been. When it came time for him to declare the princesses' secret, he went before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and told the king all he had seen. The princesses saw there was no use to deny the truth, and confessed. The soldier chose the eldest princess as his bride for he was not a very young man, and was made the king's heir.


The tale of the danced-out shoes is predominately found in central Europe, and virtually all of the variants are found in Europe. [ Stith Thompson, "The Folktale", p 34-5, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977]

In another Hessian variant noted by the Grimms, there is only a single princess who dances out twelve shoes every night. The hero was not a soldier but the youngest apprentice of the shoemaker who had to replace the shoes; he learns she is enchanted by twelve princes. [Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, "Household Tales" [ "The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces"] ]

In the variant Deulin collected the hero is not an old soldier, but a young cowherd turned gardener's boy, named Michael, and he marries not the oldest but the youngest princess. Andrew Lang included that variant in "The Red Fairy Book". [Andrew Lang, "The Red Fairy Book", [ "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"] ]

Alexander Afanasyev's variant features an impoverished nobleman as the hero, and again marries him to the youngest princess.

"Kate Crackernuts", collected by Joseph Jacobs in "English Fairy Tales", reverses the role, in that the heroine goes after the dancing prince, and also the tone: the princesses in "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" are depicted as enjoying the dances, while in the much darker "Kate Crackernuts", the prince is forced by the fairies to dance to exhaustion, and is an invalid by day. [Maria Tatar, "The Annotated Brothers Grimm", p 330 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Jeanette Winterson varies and adds to this tale in "Sexing the Cherry", in which the old soldier is a prince with 11 brothers, each of which marries a sister except the youngest, who escapes before her wedding to the prince.

Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses in which Barbie plays the role of the 7th sister, Genevieve. The plot was changed extensively. The twelve princesses visit a magic garden to dance by themselves, and they are only able to go there three times. Meanwhile, a cousin, brought in by the king to supervise their upbringing, is plotting to kill the king, and attempts to trap the princesses in their dancing garden. The hero is not an old soldier, but a cobbler who has been making their dancing shoes, and who follows them to their garden to warn them of their cousin's plot. He marries the 7th sister, Genevieve.

In 1978, a made-for-TV telling of the story was directed by Ben Rea, featuring Jim Dale, Freddie Jones, and Gloria Grahame. Significant changes were made to the story.
* The soldier (Dale) was given the Invisibility Cloak by a woman who is revealed to be the of Death (Grahame).
* The castle where the princesses went to dance had a different setting and dance style every night; the first night was that of classical ballet, the second night was that of a Roaring Twenties-era American speakeasy, and the third was a 1970's era discotheque. Each time, Death's consort, appropriately attired for the occasion, lurked in the background.
* The soldier tries, but fails, to secure tokens from the underground to the king's (Jones) satisfaction. The first night, he does gather silver and gold branches, but loses them when he overindulges in drink. The second night, having previously promised the king a golden goblet, the soldier returns with a ceramic teapot full of gin, which insults the king. On the third night, the soldier, in desperation, reveals the Invisibility Cloak to the king and convinces him to follow his daughters to the underground castle to witness their all-night dance party for himself.
* When the princesses are confronted with the truth in the morning and the soldier is offered his choice of one of them to be his wife, the soldier chooses "none of them", telling the king that his daughters had lived despicable lives of deceit and treachery, and that "if that is their nature as a girl, what would it be as a wife?"
* The soldier leaves the kingdom to continue his military life -- he again encounters Death's consort, who berates him for his choice and implies that his next battle would be his last.

This version of the tale has not aired in years and, to date, has not been released on video.

Patricia A. McKillip wrote an adaptation for the anthology "A Wolf at the Door". It's largely similar to the original fairy tale, with a few variations -- the most significant being that the princes the princesses were spending their nights dancing with were actually dead, and planning to take the princesses away from the mortal world forever the night after the soldier reveals what the princesses were doing.

Regina Doman published a modern adaptation of the tale called [ The Midnight Dancers] in June 2008 as part of her [ Fairy Tale Novels] series. In [ The Midnight Dancers] the twelve princesses are twelve girls in a blended family with a strict Christian fundamentalist father. The oldest girl, Rachel, discovers a secret door that leads them out of their Chesapeake Bay home, and the girls begin having rendevous with guys from their church. Their secret is discovered by a young ex-soldier just back from the Middle East, Paul Fester, who concocts a plan to try to restore trust between the jaded girls and their frustrated father.

The children's television show, " [! Super Why!] ", included an episode called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (Season 1. Episode 21, April 7, 2008) In this adaptation, the king asks the Super Readers to find out where his daughters are disappearing to each night. When their secret is discovered, the princesses confess to the Super Readers that they have been planning a surprise party for their father, which everyone gets to attend.

ee also

*La Ramée and the Phantom


Texts and recordings

* [ "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"] SurLaLune's annotated (German) version
* [ "The Twelve Dancing Princesses"] , French version
* [ SurLaLune's list of variants]
* [ "The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces"] Another translation of the German
*gutenberg|no=2591|name=Grimm's Fairy Tales
*gutenberg|no=5314|name=Grimm's household tales with the author's notes. Translated by Margaret Hunt.
* [ The Midnight Dancers] . Copyright 2008 by Regina Doman and Chesterton Press.

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