Paris ballet school is in a class of its own

Find out what sets the prestigious École de danse de l'Opéra apart and what life is like for its students

Young dancers in an elegant room at a rehearsal before going on stage
Dancers at a rehearsal before going on stage

For more than 350 years, dancers from the prestigious École de danse de l'Opéra have graced the stage at the Opéra national de Paris and around the world to perform and entertain.

The first company of its kind and with an international reputation for excellence, the school is considered as a necessary stepping stone towards performing with the Opéra national de Paris.

As of January 2024, 154 pupils (85 girls and 69 boys), including 85 boarders and 35 with foreign nationalities including British, are enrolled.

Demand to be a student at the school is high, with acceptance involving a rigorous, in-depth selection process including physical examinations, various evaluations and tests, with teachers looking for certain qualities within individuals.

Level of technique and artistry

As Élisabeth Platel, a previous student at the school and now director (Directrice) of l'École de Danse, explained:

“It depends on the age, if they are very young, a nine-year-old student, we are trying to find abilities of turnout, of articulation of the foot, and reactivity. When they are over 13 years old, we are looking for a certain level of technique, a certain open mind; when it's somebody from a different school, the ability to adapt.

“We are artists and human beings, but that's a big problem. Of course, we are trying to find the best dancer, but what is the best dancer? It's also an artist. So, it's really someone who will be very technical. Someone who will be a very nice artist with maybe less technique, but someone a choreographer would choose. 

"Someone who is not necessarily classical, but you think that the modern choreographer will choose them. So it's really like a fan; we have to have all of this personality. We are looking for personality plus an ability to talk on stage with their body.”

Successful applicants will start in the sixth ‘division’ and work their way up to the first with courses varying in duration depending on age groups (eight to to 11 years, or 11-13 years which are also split into six girls divisions and six boys divisions).

This year marks 20 years in the role for Mrs Platel, who took her first ballet lesson at the age of six. Doctors regularly recommend ballet to girls for good posture, legs and feet. It sparked a lifelong obsession.

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Swift promotion

In 1975, she joined the school’s Corps de Ballet and was swiftly promoted to ‘Première Danse’. Just two years later, she was honoured as a Danseur Étoile, the highest title for dancers at the ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris.

Prior to becoming Directrice, she was mentored by Brigitte Lefèvre and spent five years gaining experience of the skills needed to be director.

Directrice of l’École de Danse, Elisabeth Platel

“I was ready,” explained Mrs Platel, who did not change anything at the school for one year, observing and evolving things where needed.

Tuition is free with a timetable part academic and part artistic, with education to Baccalaureate level (the Brevet des Collèges is required for entry into the Corps de Ballet).

However, boarding at the school which has been based in Nanterre since 1987, costs extra.

Events and tours

Rehearsals for performances take place in the afternoon and dancers can participate in the school’s annual events, productions and tours.

“We are now teaching a different way because the young people are different,” said Mrs Platel. “They want to have more explanation. They want to understand. They are anxious about the future. We work strongly with them to give them all the possibilities, and also for some to help them understand that maybe ballet is not for them, but what they learn in school will help them in their lives.”

Once a student completes the first division, they can apply to join the Opéra Ballet if there are spaces available, or join another company.

When a young Louis XIV established the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, he introduced 13 ballet masters to accompany the royal entourage with the aim of analysing and codifying the rules of dance and training others.

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It was a precursor for the Conservatoir de Danse, also launched by Louis in 1713, for the masters at the academy to teach future dancers traditional French opera ballet. 

Royal decree

In 1784, Louis XVI established the Conservatoire de Théâtre and the Conservatoire de Musique de Paris, making the École de l'Opéra official by royal decree, introducing a special class for children under 12 years old.

Limited to 60 pupils, split into two classes – one for boys and one for girls – its mission was to instil “rigour”, with pupils adhering to a strict regime with examinations four times a year, participation in shows, and other obligations.

The individual’s health and physical appearance were of the utmost importance with doctors included on the admissions committee assessing the youngsters’ temperament, health and anatomical proportions.

In exchange for free tuition or payment “because of the cost of their headdresses”, students were fully expected to perform exclusively at the Opera whenever called upon, with a penalty of 100 francs for failure to comply.

Mothers from less affluent families would campaign for their daughters to join the troupe if only to benefit from free lunches and the prospect of climbing the social ladder due to a successful career or marriage, even though the youngsters were also already working in the mines or factories during the evenings.

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In the 1830s, the reputation of the school was at risk. The importance of teaching the pointe technique in the Romantic period was underestimated by ballet master Pierre Gardel and the school fell behind Milan and St Petersburg.

Contemporary accounts highlighted the low teaching standards and revealed that pupils were miserable, malnourished and falling into debauchery, with the young dance students earning the name ‘Petit Rats’. 


The mid-19th century saw new laws restricting the working hours of children, and education was integrated into the school from 1890.

A revival was under way thanks to the Ballet Russes, a Parisian ballet company which performed between 1909 and 1929, with experienced ballet masters and teachers joining the school.

Notable figures included Serge Lifar (from 1930), head of the troupe who introduced music and the history of dance; Harald Lander (1960-1963); Claude Bessy (1972-2004), who incorporated jazz and musical expression, anatomy and entertainment law; and Louis Mérante alongside his wife and teacher Zina.

A talented communicator of the classical and academic repertoire, during her illustrious career, Mrs Platel played the lead in Raymonda (1983), Swan Lake (1984), Sleeping Beauty (1989), and La Bayadère (1992).

Under her leadership, a summer intern programme was launched to showcase the school and provide an insight into its teaching methods for foreign students and teachers.

“I love my job. Like the big sister, I really like to bring them up in a good way, finding their own personality. And I am so happy when I am in the audience and I see them in the company, growing, growing, and becoming an étoile or things like that. And I just want them to make good choices. That's the most important thing, I am trying to help them to make a good choice.”

'Petit Rats'  

Towards the end of the 19th century, the young dancers at the École de danse de l’Opéra became known as ‘Petit Rats’.

“It’s a historical name and there are two meanings,” Mrs Platel said.

La petite danseuse de quatorze ans by Edgar Degas

“The first is because the studio was under the roof and these little children, who were very poor, were just running around eating whatever they could find. And the other explanation is because, when they were running, you could hear their feet in pointe shoes on the floor. 

"That’s much nicer. But historically it was because these were poor children eating whatever they could find.”

Artist Edgar Degas was a regular visitor to the Opéra national de Paris, documenting the trials and tribulations of daily life for the dancers and capturing scenes that played out behind the curtains.

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Among those he featured was Marie Geneviève Van Goethem, best known as the model for his Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans) statue. Marie was apparently 11 when Degas started work on the sculpture between 1875 and 1880, using pigmented beeswax – an unusual choice of medium for the time.

Her contorted face and taut limbs depicted a much harsher reality for the Petit Rats than people were used to seeing. 

They would spend 10-12 hours rehearsing daily for just two francs per day, with fines imposed for lateness or being absent.

Marie was reportedly later dismissed by the school for being late after posing for other painters and sculptors to increase her income. Marie’s mother was a laundress, her sister a prostitute and her younger sister would also become a dancer.

When Degas presented his creation to the world at the Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1881 alongside the more ‘polished’ exhibits, it was met with uproar. So much so that he removed the sculpture and locked it away.