"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.
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 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.
Victorian editors disliked the "do or die" aspect imposed upon those willing to discover the Princessess' 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Nancy Madore's erotic novel The Twelve Dancing Princesses focuses on twelve princesses who are already married to twelve princes. Unlike the original fairy tale, the dancing is only done in their dreams (although somehow the shoes still wear out in reality). A wizard determines that the dancing is due to the discontent in each of the princesses sex lives. And when the problem is solved, the dancing stops. The problems include such common issues as the husband neglecting the wife's desires, the wife's feelings of self-consciousness, and fear that religious beliefs prevent the enjoyment of sex.
Suzanne Weyn's novel The Night Dance retells the story, intertwining it with Arthurian legend. Here the princesses are not princesses but daughters to Vivienne, better known as the Lady of the Lake, who bore twelve daughters to her mortal husband before becoming imprisoned in a frozen lake.
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.
Diane Zahler's novel "The Thirteenth Princess" retells the story from the youngest, and thirteenth, princess Zita.
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.
The musical Metaphasia is a retelling by Paul Collette, Gary Fritzen and Robert Wright. The princesses in this retelling are all of different characteristics and descent. For example, there is a New York princess, a ballerina princess, and Asian princess.
There is also a modern day version, Regina Doman's The Midnight Dancers.
Heather Dixon's novel, "Entwined", retells the story from the point of view of Azalea, the oldest of the 12 sisters.
"~ Slipperzzzz ~ The Torrid Tale of Cobb and the 12 Dancing Princesses", a comedy adventure-romance song and dance musical theater script by Jeannette Jaquish, differs from the original fairy tale in that it is a young shoemaker, Cobb, who rescues an old woman from bandits and receives an invisibility cloak, the princes who fall asleep go to the mop closet that has "Dungeon" written on it, and the father of the Underworld Princes is the King's deceitful Grand Vizier. The Old Woman plays a key role in the princesses' rescue as well.
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.
Theo Burbank created a 10 minute play based on the fable during her senior year of high school at the Waring School of Beverly, Massachusetts. The play featured the eldest sister, Minerva, the youngest, Maisie, and the protagonist war hero: Lieutenant Finnegan (affectionately called "Finn" by Maisie). The play takes place the day of Minerva and Finnegan's wedding. Finnegan is dressing in his bedroom when Maisie enters. It is revealed that Finnegan and Maisie are actually better lovers than Finnegan and Minerva (Maisie having been the one secretly dancing with him the night he discovered them). The play ends with a shellshocked Minerva ambiguously finding out their secret. Maisie and Finnegan swing dance, Finnegan and Minerva do a very controlled (by the strict Minerva) version of the "I've Had The Time of My Life" dance from Dirty Dancing.
Genevieve Valentine's novel, "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.