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Elenore Abbott - The Shoes that Were Danced to Pieces - 1920

Illustration by Eleonore Abbott.

"The Twelve Dancing Princesses" (or "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes" or "The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces", original: "Die zertanzten Schuhe") 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) and Alexander Afanasyev collected a Russian variant, "The Secret Ball", in Narodnye Russkie Skazki. Joseph Jacobs collected a Gender Flip, "Kate Crackernuts".

The plot follows twelve princesses who 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 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 came to try his hand at the task, following many who had failed. 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. He followed the advice, only pretending to drink the wine given to him by a princess after reaching the castle, and pretending to fall 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. The passageway led them to three groves of trees one of silver, the second of gold, and the third of diamonds. The soldier, breaking off a twig as evidence. They walked on until they came upon a great lake, twelve boats with twelve princes in them ferrying them to the other side, the soldier hiding in the boat of the youngest princess. On the other side of the lake was a castle, into which all the princesses went and danced the night away until their shoes were worn and they needed to leave.

This continued a second and third night and 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 took the eldest princess as his bride and was made the king's heir.

The story has been adapted several times to that of television and movie format (like Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses and one episode of the Japanese series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics), and also used as the inspiration for some novels and parts of stories such as Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry.

Tropes in "The Twelve Dancing Princesses":

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