I remembered a story with twelve dancing princesses but not with that title. I flipped through the pages and found Die Zertanzten Schuhe. Schuhe = shoes. The title isn't translated literally because there's no English equivalent for zertanzt, which means something like "danced to smithereens" or "worn to nothingness from dancing". You can see the stem of the word dance or tanz.
Did you know that once upon a time English and German came from the same language? You can still see that in everyday words like sun/Sonne, moon/Mond, salt/Salz, milk/Milch, etc.
In German, when you put the prefix zer before a word, you add destruction. For example, to zerschlag a bowl doesn't just mean you broke it. You shattered it into tiny bits. Shoes that were zertanzt aren't even worth taking to get reheeled. They've been danced to garbage.
There may not be a single English word to translate zertanzt, but gee. The story could have been called Shoes Danced to Shreds. Or how about Dance-Mashed Shoes? Almost anything would have more pizzazz than The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Especially since the twelve of them exhibit no individual characteristics. They're simply a gaggle of girls who wreck their shoes with dancing. The twelve pairs of shoes matter more than the princesses do. Only the eldest and the youngest ever speak.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
There was once a king who had twelve daughters, one more beautiful than the next.
--I don't like these kind of family comparisons. It doesn't foster good relations between siblings.
They slept in a room with their beds side by side, and in the evening when they went to bed the king locked the door behind them.
In the morning, though, when he opened it, he saw that their shoes were danced to shreds and no one could understand how this had happened.
--me neither, but I'm glad the girls figured out how to escape a father who locked them up every night. And look at that fancy collection of shoes!
The king made a proclamation that whoever could discover where his daughters danced in the night would have one of them for a wife, and after his death would inherit the throne. However, if a person came forward and discovered nothing after three days and nights, that person would be put to death.
--I suppose that's one way to make sure only serious (or stupid) contenders come forward.
In little time a prince arrived to undertake the challenge. He was made welcome and in the evening led to a room outside the bedroom where the princesses slept. A bed was made for him, and so that he could watch where they went, the doors were left open.
But the prince fell sound asleep, and when he woke in the morning the twelve pairs of shoes were worn through with holes from dancing.
The same happened on the second and third night, and so he was beheaded without mercy.
Others came to try their luck and lost their lives to the wager.
So it happened that a poor soldier, who was wounded and could no longer serve his country, found himself on the road to the city where the king lived.
He met an old woman who asked where he was going.
"I don't really know," he said. And as a joke added, "I wouldn't mind finding out where those princesses wreck their shoes dancing so I could become king."
--he would also get one of the dance-besotted princesses for a wife, but that doesn't seem to be an incentive
"That's not so hard," the old woman said. "Don't drink the wine they bring you in the evening and pretend you're sound asleep." Then she gave him a cloak. "When you wear this, you'll be invisible and can follow the twelve princesses."
This good advice made the soldier decide to go to the palace and undertake the challenge.
--more than the advice, I'm thinking the cloak will do the trick
He was welcomed as the others had been and brought royal clothing.
--maybe he didn't have formal wear in his soldier's duffel bag and they wanted him to look nice at supper?
In the evening, when he was brought to the room outside the bedroom, the eldest daughter brought him a cup of wine. He'd tied foam under his chin and let the wine soak it up so that he didn't drink a drop.
--I'm trying to visualize this and can't, but I didn't write it; I'm only translating.
He lay down and after a while began snoring as if sound asleep.
The twelve princesses heard him and laughed. The eldest said, "What a fool. He could have saved his life too."
--it's the first she's spoken and already I don't like her
They got up and opened their wardrobes, brought out their magnificent clothes, preened before the mirrors and looked forward to the dance. Only the youngest said, "You're all so happy but I feel uneasy. I'm sure something bad will happen tonight."
"You're such a goose," said the eldest. "You're always afraid. Have you forgotten how many princes have already tried and failed? I didn't even have to bring that soldier a sleeping potion. He's such a lout he would never have woken."
--the eldest princess seems made of the same stuff as her father who locks up his daughters and chops off heads. Or is the eldest princess like this because of her father? A chicken and egg argument.
When the princesses were ready, they checked on the soldier who had closed his eyes and didn't move, and they believed they were quite safe.
The eldest went to her bed and knocked on it. It sank into the earth
--the word is Erde--earth--not floor
and they stepped through the opening, one after the other, the eldest first.
The soldier, who had been watching, didn't hesitate. He swung the cloak around himself and followed the youngest princess down the stairs. Halfway down, he stepped on the edge of her dress. She cried out, "What's that? Something's caught my dress!"
"Don't be so silly," the eldest said. "There was a hook on the wall."
They continued down the stairs until they were at the bottom where there was a magnificent alley of trees that had leaves of silver that gleamed and shimmered.
The soldier thought he should take proof with him and broke off a twig. The tree made a tremendous crack and the youngest princess said, "Did you hear that? Something isn't right."
The eldest said, "Those are cries of joy because soon our princes will be free."
They came to another alley of trees where the leaves were of gold, and finally to a third alley where the leaves were of glittering diamonds. In both, the soldier broke off a twig and each time the tree cracked with such a groan that the youngest princess shrieked. The eldest still insisted the sounds were cries of joy.
They came to a lake where there were twelve small boats, and in each sat a handsome prince. Each princess stepped into a boat. The soldier followed the youngest into hers.
The prince said, "The boat seems heavier today. It's taking all my strength to row it."
"Why should that be?" said the princess. "The air feels so close too. I feel hot."
Across the water stood a beautifully lit-up castle where trumpets and drums were making merry music. The princes moored their boats, and each led his princess inside where they began dancing.
The soldier danced invisibly along, and if someone held a cup of wine, he drank from it, so that it was empty when they lifted it.
--this, like the sponge under the chin, is hard to visualize. Unless, of course, he had a straw.
Okay, I just looked this up: straws date back to prehistoric times. Obviously not the plastic straw as we know it, but hollow reeds were used for sucking up liquid. It is possible the soldier who had an invisible cloak also had some form of straw. After all, he was equipped with a sponge.
The youngest princess was alarmed when she saw that her cup, from which she hadn't drunk, was empty, but again the eldest calmed her.
The princesses danced until three in the morning when their shoes were worn through and they had to stop. The princes rowed them across the water again, and this time the soldier sat in the first boat with the eldest. On the bank the princesses took leave of their princes and promised to come again the next night. The soldier ran ahead and lay in his bed, and as the twelve exhausted princesses slowly climbed the stairs, he snored so loudly they could all hear him, and they said, "We don't have to give ourselves any worries about him."
They took off their fine clothes, put them away, set their danced-to-shreds shoes under their beds and lay down.
In the morning the soldier decided to say nothing so he could follow and watch them again, which he did for a second then a third night. Everything proceeded as on the first night. Every night the princesses danced until their shoes were worn to holes.
--I would start to get bored, but I'm not a princess. Also, one must never underrate the attraction of the forbidden.
The third time the soldier brought a cup away with him as proof.
When the hour came that he was supposed to give his answer, he took the three twigs and the cup and went to the king. The twelve princesses stood behind the door and listened. The king said, "Where did my twelve daughters wreck their shoes in the night?"
"With twelve princes in an underground castle." The soldier recounted all he'd seen and brought out his signs of proof.
The king called his daughters and asked if the soldier spoke the truth. When they saw their secret had been discovered and lying wouldn't help, they confessed to everything.
--I expected that at least the mouthy eldest daughter would put up some resistance, maybe try to discredit the soldier, object to his supposed articles of proof. This doesn't make for any drama. The princesses are discovered and they surrender. Or maybe the Grimms brothers decided it was time to end the story.
The king asked the soldier which daughter he wanted for a wife.
--my guess would be the youngest because he's already stepped on her dress and drunk from her cup, but the soldier isn't reading from a Hollywood script. Or perhaps he's looking forward to years of domestic revenge for being called a lout. The German, by the way, in the event you're travelling and need it, is Lümmel.
"I am no longer so young myself, so give me the eldest."
The wedding took place on the very same day and he was promised that he would inherit the throne upon the king's death.
The princes were cursed for as many days again as they had danced with the twelve princesses.
I announce the end because the objective of the story is so unclear, you might not know the story is finished. I turned the page myself, expecting something else to happen. It bothers me that ten of the twelve princesses never made a peep except for a collective laugh. Why include twelve princesses if they serve no purpose in themselves? For the crowd effect? The two who spoke were no more than stereotypes. What must the eldest have been thinking when she had to marry a man she thought a lout? Or maybe her opinion improved when she saw he'd succeeded where the others had failed.
I don't believe this story is about the princesses at all. It's about the shoes.
Which brings me back to my objection to the English version of the title.