Paris Free Walking Tour: The dancers of Cimetiere de Montmartre
Text and photos One of my favorite places to visit early on a Sunday morning (besides the flea market!) is Paris’ Cimetière de Montmartre. Spanning 110 acres (in 33 divisions), it’s nearly impossible to pay homage to everyone buried there, but with a little planning, you can narrow the field to suit your own passions. Try literature, the arts, sciences, politics, or cinema. My personal choice? Dance.
With that “point” in mind, here’s a walking tour of the Cimetière de Montmartre, with just a dash of tawdry gossip for fun. Shall we dance?
Le dieu de la danse and dance master for Louis XVI, Gaetan Vestris was first to drop the mask during performances, and rely on expressive good looks alone. Vanity-inspired innovation? “There are but three great men in Europe—the king of Prussia, Voltaire and I,” was his favorite boast. Son Auguste Vestris (Le dieu II) reigned over the Paris Opera for decades, where he busted a sissonne (flying) move and made the folk favorite gavotte his own.
Marie Taglioni’s appearance in her father’s “La Sylphide” marked the arrival of the Romantics. Though she wasn’t the first to dance en pointe or don the muslin skirt (skimming the ankle much to the delight of every binocular-carrying dandy!), she’s the one who made it her own. Taglioni’s popularity launched her name into the lingo: the verb Taglioniser (to be slender and graceful). And most coveted coiffeur? À la syphide!
Riots erupted in Milan when Fanny Cerrito took the stage to challenge rival Taglioni. According to her choreographer husband, Arthur Saint-Leon, Cerrito was clearly the winner. “Taglioni’s leg encompassed a great deal of attention; Cerrito’s leg magnified excitement.”
Famed terpsichorean Louise Weber, a.k.a. La Goulue (the Glutton) was Queen of the Can Can and a favorite muse of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She earned her moniker for nipping drinks from her audience while distracting them with her pantaloons and little pet goat. “When I see my behind in these paintings, I find it beautiful!” she once quipped.
Poet and dance critic Théophile Gàutier wrote “Giselle” for dancer Carlotta Grisi after falling hard for her. Though the affair was short-lived, all was not lost. Gáutier married her sister instead, and thus literature entered the world of ballet.
Though limelight stage lighting had the advantage of being a lot brighter than oil, it still wasn’t hazard-free. Taglioni protégé Emma Livry refused to soak her gauzy costume in fire-proofing because she abhorred the discoloring and feared it would weigh her down, but then tripped over a limelight, and set herself on fire. And now here she is!
“The dancer is an excuse to paint pretty fabric and depict movement,” wrote Edgar Degas, who painted his beloved petits rats (ballerinas in training) for nearly fifty years. He’s buried here and many Parisians and tourists alike pay homage to him by leaving flowers. Bonus: Check out his paintings and sculptures at the Musée d’Orsay.
Intersection 8e 9e + 11e
Courtier Paul Poiret (Le Magnifique) not only draped favorite client Isadora Duncan in diaphanous chitons made of Dijon-colored chiffon, but also performed with her at his infamous Ballets Russes-inspired, tented backyard fêtes.
“Our children would be dancing geniuses,” Isadora Duncan mused to Ballets Russes Vaslav Nijinsky by way of a marriage proposal. Unfortunately, he turned her down, because—rumor has it—he didn’t want his children dancing like her! When asked the secret to his airy, floating leaps, he would say only, “You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.”
Still feel like dancing? At the Cimetière du Pere Lachaise, you’ll find still more: Jane Avril, Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, Cléo de Mérode, and Alwin Nikolais (to name but a few) await you.
Looking for a guided walking tour? Check out our post on free guided tours in Paris.