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The dancer Marie Camargo was forgotten in her own lifetime

Posted in Dance, Historical articles on Friday, 31 May 2013

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This edited article about Marie Camargo originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 275 published on 22 April 1967.

One of the tragic things of life is how quickly people who have made great names for themselves can be forgotten, even in their own lifetime: such a person was Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo. After her death on 20th April, 1770, only one admirer – a young man who remembered her from her dancing days – bothered to follow her hearse to the Paris cemetery. Yet a few years earlier her name had been a household world; she was a leader of fashion and the foremost ballet dancer in Europe. Even a certain kind of cake she liked was known as a “Camargo cake”.

Fame came early. She was born on 15th April, 1710, and by the time she was 14 she had made her name as a dancer at Brussels and Rouen in France. Two years later she appeared in Paris and took the city by storm. Everyone was raving about the 16-year-old girl who had transformed the rather stilted ballet of the day into something alive and magical.

Soon she was known for her dress design as well as her dancing. In those days the dresses of ballerinas reached the floor and made anything but the simplest steps very difficult. Marie, wishing to try more adventurous steps, introduced the shortened ballet skirt, much to the indignation of many prudish people who thought it very immodest.

Despite their protests the short ballet skirt remained and the art of dancing took a giant stride forward. Designers copied Marie’s stage costumes and soon she found herself a leader of fashion.

Immediately after the opening of one of Marie’s ballets, dressmakers would work through the night on dresses based on what she wore so their rich customers could show off their latest “Camargo creations” the next day. The years passed and Marie went from success to success. Altogether she appeared in 70 ballets and operas, and she earned herself a great deal of money. But she could not keep it. She loved to live in style and to entertain lavishly. So when she found that she was getting too old to dance she also found that nearly all her fortune had gone. Without her famous parties, her exciting first-nights and the glamour of the theatre, Marie was soon forgotten. New dancers had come along, a short ballet skirt was no longer sensational. The gay dancer became a lonely old woman, dying almost in poverty.

Ballet owes a lot to Marie Camargo. She invented many new steps and revolutionised the public attitude to this graceful art. She was forgotten by her public in her own time, but since then lovers of ballet have revered her name and will always continue to do so.

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