Nella's Dancing Shoes

A Story by Eleanor Farjeon

from Italian Peepshow

This is a Choosing Story. Sometimes when I have told stories to Briget and Chloe and Nan all day long, and really can't think any more, I say, "Choose what shall be in the story."

Then everybody who is in the room chooses something.

BRIDGET: I choose a pair of Red Velvet Dancing Slippers. (Bridget has a pair of red velvet dancing slippers.)
CHLOE: I choose an Eagle.
THEIR MUMMY: I choose a Jungle.
ELEANOR: And I choose a fan. Now wait a minute while I think.

When I have thought, which mustn't be more than a minute, the story begins, and goes on by itself.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful Dancer who lived in a garden in Italy.
BRIDGET: What was she called?
ELEANOR: She was called Nella. BRIDGET: Oh. (Bridget's prettiest doll is called Nella.)
Nella was the loveliest dancer in the world, and all the people wanted her to come and dance at their parties. In the evening she would go down to Florence to their long salons hung with blue satin embroidered with flowers, or red velvet printed with gold, and dance on the polished floors under twelve enormous chandeliers glittering with lights and lustres, which hung down like long diamond ear-drops in a Queen's ears; or else she would dance in their gardens on the lawns among the statues and roses and fountains, where all the trees were hung with lights like coloured stars. And whenever she danced in her rose-red velvet dancing slippers, all the people clapped their hands and shouted, "Brava, Nella! Brava! Brava!"

In Nella's cupboard at home were rows and rows of other slippers, of gold and glass, and silk, and leather, but she never wore any of them when she went to dance for the people. For the rose-red velvet slippers were magic slippers which made her dance better than anyone else in Italy; and when she wore her other slippers, she couldn't dance at all. Nobody knew this but Nella.

One day Nella was in her garden picking roses, and because the dew was on the grass she had taken off her red velvet slippers and left them by her chair. Suddenly a great Eagle swooped out of the sky, caught the slippers in his beak, and flew away as swiftly as he had come. Nella gave a scream and stood on tiptoe, and reached out her arms, trying to touch the sky. But it was no good; the slippers and the Eagle had vanished entirely.

Then Nella sat down and cried and cried. She was to dance that night for the Prince of Florence, but when the people came to fetch her she was still sitting crying in the garden, and she wouldn't tell them why. She only sobbed, and said she wouldn't dance. They entreated in vain - no! she wouldn't dance. She couldn't, of course, because she had lost her magic slippers. Every day after that she sat in the garden watching the sky, and every night the people were sad because Nella, their beautiful dancer, would dance for them no more.

One day as Nella sat watching the sky for the Eagle she saw a rush of wings overhead. It was not the Eagle, however, but a flight of Swallows. "Oh, Swallows!" cried Nella. "You go about in the sky as people go about on earth, so have you seen the great Eagle who stole my red velvet slippers?"
But the Swallows had never seen or heard of him, and flew away, and Nella wept.

The next day as she was watching, a flcok of wild swans flew over her head.
"Oh, swans!" cried Nella. "You go over more places in a year than most men travel in a lifefime, so have you seen the great Eagle who stole my red velvet slippers?"
But the Swans could give her no news of him, and they flew away, and Nella wept.

The next day as she was watching, she saw a thousand Starlings twinkle like stars over her garden.
"Oh, Starlings!" cried Nella. "You have been everywhere among the clouds, so have you in your travels ever met the great Eagle who stole my red velvet slippers?"
But the Starlings could tell her no more than the Swans or the Swallows, and they also flew away, and Nella wept.

On the fourth day as she sat in her garden a single shadow fluttered on the grass, and looking up she saw it was made by a green Parrot with one red feather in his tail.
"Oh, Parrot!" cried Nella. "You live in strange countries and have seen many things, so have you seen the great Eagle who stole my red velvet slippers?"
"Certainly I have," said the Parrot.
"Oh, where?" cried Nella.
"I was sitting on a coconut-tree in a Jungle," said the Parrot, "and the Eagle flew over my head with your slippers in his beak. When he reached the very middle of the Jungle, he opened his beak and dropped the slippers, and that was the last I saw of him or them."
"Oh, Parrot!" cried Nella. "WHere is the Jungle?"
"In the middle of India," said the Parrot and flew away.

Then Nella began to weep again, for it seemed to her that her precious slippers might as well be in the Eagle's beak as in the middle of India, for all the use they were to her.

Just then she heard a voice say, "Come, come, I wouldn't cry if I were you!" and looking up she saw the Fan-Man looking though the gate. He was long a thin and dressed in green, and he had a green paper fan in his hand.
"What would you do, then?" said Nella. "The Eagle has dropped my red slippers in the very middle of the Jungle in the very middle of India, so there's nothing to do but cry. If I had wings like a Eagle or a Swallow or a Swan or a Starling or a Parrot, I wouldn't need to cry."
"Tush, tush!" said the Fan-Man. "There are more ways of flying than with wings."

Then he came into the garden and told Nella to stand on tiptoe as though she were going to dance, and when she was on the very points of her toes he opened his fan and fanned her. Up she went into the air like a bird, and after her went the Fan-Man, fanning with all his might. He fanned her right across Italy and Turkey and Persia until the reached India; and when he fanned her to the very middle of the Jungle, the Fan-Man stopped, and Nella dropped.

Now in the very middle of the Jungle in the very middle of India there is a Blue Pool, so Nella dropped into the Pool and went down and down and down till she got to the bottom. At the bottom she found the Blue Nymph of the pool sitting on a lotus leaf, and to Nella's great joy the Nymph had the red velvet slippers on. But as she had never seen slippers before and hadn't the least idea what they were for, instead of having them on her feet she had hung them in her ears, where they dangled like a pair of red earrings.

Nella clasped her hands and cried, "Nymph, Nymph, give me my slippers!"
"That I won't!" said the Nymph. "They are my slippers, for the Eagle who brings me things brought them to me, and they are the prettiest things I ever saw."
"Then you haven't seen those I wear on my feet," said Nella, and she put out her little feet which happened that day to be shod in her golden slippers. They were much prettier than the red ones, though not nearly so wonderful.

But the Nymph didn't know that, and anyhow she had no use for slippers to dance in, but only to hang in her ears, so she eagerly asked, "Will you change?"
"If you wish it." said Nella. And she kicked off her golden slippers and put on her red ones, while the Blue Nymph hung the golden slippers in her ears, and looked more pleased with herself than before.
"Goodbye," said Nella.
"Goodbye," said the Blue Nymph.

Then Nella rose to the top of the pool, where the Fan-Man was waiting for her. As soon as he saw her he spread his fan again, and in another moment she was sailing over India and Persian and Turkey and Italy. And when they came to her own rose garden, the Fan-Man stopped, and Nella dropped.

The first thing she did was stand on her toes and dance.

The next thing she did was send word to the town, saying, "Tonight I will dance for the Prince of Florence."

And that night, under thoudands of stars, amongst thousands of coloured lights, Nella danced on the lawn in her red velvet slippers better than she had ever danced before, and all the people, overjoyed to have their beautiful Nella dancing for them again, climbed on the chairs and tables, and clapped their hands, shouting: "Brava, Nella! Brava! Brava!"

The Italian Peepshow is an interesting collection of stories. Chapters (stories) of life in Italy are paired with more imaginative tales. A chapter on the things they eat and the many shapes of pasta - is followed by a lively tale of "how the King of Tripoli Brings the Pasta". Another chapter about the fear of dogs is followed by a story, "The Herb of Fear". Eleanor's tales, I suspect were often improvised on the spot. Similar improvisation seems to lie behind the tales in The Old Nurse's Stocking Basket and Jim at the Corner. Clearly these stories began as interactive situations between teller and listeners, something that happens so seldom in our TV/Video dominated world today. Bring back the bedtime story!

The art of improvisational storytelling is one that true storytellers need to cultivate and frequently practice.

When I have told Improv stories - they have often been the highlight of the program. I suspect it is because all telling is a partnership between tale teller and tale listener, and people love to participate. I suspect that the masters of storytelling all have learned this art - of involving their listeners in the creation of a tale. I strongly suspect that many of the stories of Eleanor Farjeon, or Carl Sandburg began as bedtime collaborations with small groups of children, later to be refined and written down.

One of the best collections of what were originally improvisational stories is The Wonder Dog by Richard Hughes - these stories began as stories told to children evacuated from London during the Blitz. In them are reflected the fears and anxieties of the children, and story becomes a means of coping with them.

Richard Hughes says in his introduction, "Each story was told entirely off the cuff, and once-only performance never repeated to others. Naturally only a few out of very many ever got written down afterwards. For whereas the child, who has been held by a story seems capable of total recall, and can tell it back next morning almost word for word, this unpremeditated kind of storytelling demands from the teller himself intense concentration on his listeners - not on the story bubbling up freely from his own Unconscious. The teller tends to forget his story as soon as he has told it, like the dream you forget on waking: unless he can get it dictated back to him later it is gone for good. Almost every story in this book has been through a child's mind and back to me again like this before reaching the written page." (p. 9)

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