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The Twelve Dancing Princesses


The Twelve Dancing Princesses

The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Children's Theatre performance in Maine 1942
Folk tale
Name The Twelve Dancing Princesses
Aarne-Thompson grouping 306
Country Germany
Region Münster
Published in Kinder- und Hausmärchen
Related Kate Crackernuts

"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 1812 in Kinder- und Hausmärchen as tale number 133. Its closest analogue is the Scottish Kate Crackernuts, where it is a prince who is obliged to dance every night.

Charles Deulin collected another, French version in his Contes du Roi Cambinus (1874), which he credited to the Grimm version.[1] Alexander Afanasyev collected a Russian variant, "The Secret Ball", in Narodnye russkie skazki.


  • Plot 1
  • Background 2
  • Variants 3
  • Adaptations 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Twelve princesses, each more beautiful than the last, sleep in twelve beds in the same room. Every night, their doors are securely locked. But in the morning, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king, perplexed, promises his kingdom and each daughter to any man who can discover the princesses' midnight secret within three days and three nights, but those who fail within the set time limit will be put to death.

An old soldier returned from war comes to the king's call after several princes have failed in the attempt. Whilst traveling through a wood he comes upon an old woman, who gives him an enchanted cloak that he can use to observe them unawares and tells him not to eat or drink anything given to him in the evening by any of the princesses and to pretend to be fast asleep until after they leave.

The soldier is well received at the palace just as the others had been and indeed, in the evening, the eldest princess comes to his chamber and offers him a cup of wine. The soldier, remembering the old woman's advice, throws it away secretly and begins to snore loudly as if asleep.

The twelve princesses, sure that the soldier is asleep, dress themselves in fine dancing gowns and escape from their room by a trap door in the floor. The soldier, seeing this, dons his magic cloak and follows them. He steps on the gown of the youngest princess, whose cry of alarm to her sisters is rebuffed by the eldest. The passageway leads them to three groves of trees; the first having leaves of silver, the second of gold, and the third of glittering diamonds. The soldier, wishing for a token, breaks off a twig of each as evidence. They walk on until they come upon a great clear lake. Twelve boats, with twelve princes, appear where the twelve princesses are waiting. Each princess gets into one, and the soldier steps into the same boat as the twelfth and youngest princess. The youngest princess complains that the prince is not rowing fast enough, not knowing the soldier is in the boat. On the other side of the lake stands a castle, into which all the princesses go and dance the night away.

The twelve princesses happily dance all night until their shoes are worn through and they are obliged to leave. The strange adventure continues on the second and third nights, and everything happens just as before, except that on the third night the soldier carries away a golden cup as a token of where he has been. When it comes time for him to declare the princesses' secret, he goes before the king with the three branches and the golden cup, and tells the king all he has seen. The princesses know that there is no use in denying the truth, and confess. The soldier chooses the first and eldest princess as his bride for he is not a very young man, and is made the King's heir. The 12 princes are put under a curse for as many nights as they danced with the princesses.


The Brothers Grimm learned the tale from their friends the Hauxhausens who had heard the tale in Munster. Other versions were known in Hesse and Paderborn. In the Hesse version, only one princess is believed to be responsible for wearing out a dozen shoes every night until a young shoemaker's apprentice discovers that she is joined by eleven other princesses in the revels. The spell is broken, and the apprentice marries the princess. In the Paderborn version, it is three princesses who dance nightly. This version introduces the ruse of the soldier disposing of the drugged wine and pretending to be asleep.[2]

Victorian editors disliked the "do or die" aspect imposed upon those willing to discover the Princesses' whereabouts, and found ways to avoid it. The candidates who failed simply vanished without explanation instead of being sent to their deaths. The garden of trees with gold, silver, and diamond leaves recalls a similar garden in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.[2]

Strangely enough, the Princesses are often portrayed as somewhat malicious characters, showing no remorse for lying to their father, and repeatedly giving their suitors drugged wine to ensure that their mystery remains unsolved, despite knowing that those who fail are put to death in some versions of the story.


The tale is not likely to be earlier than the 17th century and many variants are known from different countries.[3]

  • Russia - The Danced Out Shoes" from Russia, Elena the Wise. The Midnight Dance, The Secret Ball
  • Cape Verde - Dividing the Heirlooms: The Shoes That Were Danced To Pieces
  • India - Dorani, "The Invisible Woman"
  • Armenia - The Giant-Slayer
  • Hungary - The Hell-Bent Misses, The Invisible Shepherd Lad
  • Iceland - Hild, Queen of the Elves, Hildur the Fairy Queen, Hildur, the Queen of the Elves
  • Scotland - Katie Crackernuts
  • Bengal - The Kotwal’s Daughter, The Rose of Bakáwalí
  • Turkey - The Magic Turban, the Magic Whip, and the Magic Carpet
  • Portugal - The Moorish Prince and the Christian Princess, The Seven Iron Slippers
  • Denmark - The Princess with the Twelve Pair of Golden Shoes
  • Germany - The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces, The Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • Romania - The Slippers of the Twelve Princesses, The Twelve Princesses with the Worn-Out Slipper
  • Czech Republic - The Three Girls
  • Slovakia - The Three Girls
  • France - The Twelve Dancing Princesses


  • Sophie Kahn wrote an adaptation of this well known fairytale titled "Dancing Through the Night"
  • 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.
  • In Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses, Barbie plays the role of the seventh sister, Genevieve.
  • It was a storybook and cassette in the Once Upon a Time Fairy Tale series.
  • In 1978, a made-for-TV retelling of the story was directed by Ben Rea, featuring Jim Dale, Freddie Jones, and Gloria Grahame. Significant changes were made to the story, including the soldier ultimately declining to marry any of the princesses.
  • It was retold in literature as Walter de la Mare's Told Again and Tales Told Again and in Robin McKinley's The Door in the Hedge.
  • Patricia A. McKillip wrote an adaptation for the anthology A Wolf at the Door. It has a few variations, the most significant being that the princes who 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.
  • 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.
  • Anne Sexton wrote an adaptation as a poem called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" in her collection Transformations (1971), a book in which she re-envisions sixteen of the Grimm's Fairy tales.[4]
  • The Juliet Marillier novel Wildwood Dancing gives a retelling set in Transylvania, mixed with traditional Transylvanian folk tales. The underground kingdom they dance in is the fairy kingdom, to which they have gained entrance by the grace of the Witch of the Wood.
  • Princess of the Midnight Ball is a retelling with the twist that the princesses are cursed to dance every night for an evil sorcerer, the King Under Stone.
  • The television series Faerie Tale Theatre had an episode entitled "The Dancing Princesses". There were six princesses as opposed to twelve, but otherwise the story remains the same.
  • The anime series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics, features a twist within the story (with the princesses being reduced to 3). It turns out demons live within the magical place and have placed a spell on the fair maidens before the soldier realizes the truth and rescues them. He marries the eldest daughter. In this version, the failed suitors are sent to prison instead of executed.
  • Heather Dixon's novel, "Entwined", retells the story from the point of view of Azalea, the oldest of the 12 sisters.
  • Jim Weiss narrates a more child-friendly version of this story on his audio CD Best Loved Stories. In this version, the protagonist is portrayed as an unwitting war hero, and is offered milk, not wine, by the princesses. Failed attempts at discovering the princesses' secret results in banishment from the kingdom instead of death. Finally, the protagonist, named Carl Gustav in this version, chooses the youngest daughter ("Rosebud") and to be the steward of all of the King's gardens rather than choosing the oldest to become heir to the throne.
  • Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a novel-length reimagining of the fairytale that is set in New York City in the Jazz Age. The twelve sisters are kept in the upper story of their father's brownstone because he is embarrassed at his failure to produce a male heir.
  • In 1990, Laura Bedore, Dorothy Keddington and Stephanie Clark published a stage version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. In this family friendly musical, the 12 princes are sent to the dungeon after their failure to solve the mystery of the shoes but are reunited with their princesses after the soldier, aided by a befriended witch, is able to do so.


See also


  1. ^ Charles Deulin, Contes du Roi Cambinus (1874)
  2. ^ a b Opie 1992, pp. 188-9
  3. ^ Sur La Lune Fairy Tales
  4. ^ by Anne Sexton"Transformations"
  5. ^ [The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a musical based on the Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm. Book by Laura Bedore, Dorothy Keddington & Stephanie Clark. Music by Kathy Skidmore. Lyrics by Laura Bedore and Dorothy Keddington. Copyright 1990]


  • Tatar, Maria (2004). The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton & Company.  

External links

  • The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces Another translation of the German
  • Grimm's Fairy Tales at Project Gutenberg
  • Grimm's household tales with the author's notes at Project Gutenberg. Translated by Margaret Hunt.
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