The Red Shoes ~ a dark faery tale of compulsion and addiction


The Red Shoes ~ a dark faery tale of compulsion and addiction


If you remember the Hans Christian Andersen story from childhood, you’ll remember the plot basically goes like this: orphaned child adopted by rich old lady covets ‘sinful’ red shoes and tricks her guardian into having some made for her by a shoemaker. The child finally breaks the prohibition on wearing them to church, and on speaking with a strange soldier who admires the shoes (the devil in disguise) the shoes come to life and dance her away until she begs the excutioner to frees her from them by cutting her feet off, and the shoes (complete with feet) dance away. Earlier versions have the girl dance herself to a skeleton and dance on after death.

Whichever version you know, they’re all pretty grim. The version in the Kate Bush song is possibly grimmer than either. If you watch the second video, it tells the story of a dancing diva who comes to a dowdy and quiet girl backstage and tricks her into taking the shoes from her, whereupon she is freed from the spell of the shoes and runs away leaving the girl to discover her hideous mistake. this is just the song this is the video; very disturbing but please watch, it’s powerful.

Oh she move like the Diva do
I said ‘I’d love to dance like you.’
She said ‘just take off my red shoes
Put them on and your dream’ll come true
With no words, with no song
You can dance the dream with your body on
And this curve, is your smile
And this cross, is your heart
And this line, is your path
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always thought it would be
But it’s gonna be no illusion
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always dreamt about it
But it’s gonna be really happening to ya
Really happening to ya
Really happening to ya’
Oh the minute I put them on
I knew I had done something wrong
All her gifts for the dance had gone
It’s the red shoes, they can’t stop dancing, dancing
And this curve, is your smile
And this cross, is your heart
And this line, is your path
‘Oh it’s gonna be the way you always thought it would be
But it’s gonna be no illusion
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always dreamt about it
But it’s gonna be really happening to ya’
She gotta dance, she gotta dance
And she can’t stop ’till them shoes come off
These shoes do, a kind of voodoo
They’re gonna make her dance ’till her legs fall off
Feel your hair come tumbling down
Feel your feet start kissing the ground
Feel your arms are opening out
And see your eyes are lifted to God
With no words, with no song
I’m gonna dance the dream
And make the dream come true
I’m gonna dance the dream
And make the dream come true
She gotta dance, she gotta dance
And she can’t stop ’till them shoes come off
These shoes do, a kind of voodoo
They’re gonna make her dance ’till her legs fall off
Call a doctor, call a priest
They’re gonna whip her up like a helicopter
Really happening to ya
Really happening to ya
You gotta dance….




This is the tale at the heart of every addiction, every compulsion, every obsession. If you have ever been in the grip of any of these, you’ll know that manic, frantic need for the substance, or idea or action or person, that drives you beyond wild. Listen to the music, hear that beat, that’s your heart. Hear that inner scream, that’s you.

In both the original faery tale and the Kate Bush version there is a trickster, a person who cons you into taking the forbidden shoes because they bleed into your dreams. They only offer you it, they cannot force it onto you. You choose to take it. “Oh the minute I put them on, I knew I had done something wrong!” It can take years to wake up to the damage of a compulsion or addiction but some part of us knows, at that very first instance. Is it any wonder that many users become dealers? We seek to rid ourselves of the Red Shoes, usually by passing them on to some other unwitting victim who buys into the same dark dreams; and yet however we give away or sell the Shoes, they’re there, stuck on our feet and no amount of pulling can get them off.

They’ve become part of us. The solution is always radical. It’s always painful, often excruciatingly so. Cut it off, cut it out of your life. The faery-tale version has the shoes dance away, gruesome but harmless because they can never be filled again by living feet. The song version leaves the ending to the imagination, and it’s likely a dark one.

Go back in time to the moment you first donned your Red Shoes. What did you think they were going to do for you? The chances are they did, but like all demonic pacts, never in the way you thought they would. The outcome twists your hopes and intentions.

Look at your Red Shoes. Are they pretty any more or do they drive you to do things you don’t like admitting? Can you take them off and throw them in the river or into the fire or does the thought of that make you shudder?

If you can’t take them off, time to find someone who can, even if they take your feet away too. Better to walk lame than dance into hell.


{for more analysis of the meanings of faery tales I would recommend reading Women who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It’s a brick of a book but wonderfully written. Read more about it and her here :

or here


33 thoughts on “The Red Shoes ~ a dark faery tale of compulsion and addiction

  1. Indeed, I have my Women Who Run with the Wolves right here – all tagged, marked and bent. She taught me a great deal in that magical tome.

    I will have her latest round of wisdom one day to study. It’s only on DVD…

  2. That’s an amazing analogy which really brings your point to life. I seem to recall a version of this story where the shoes were red because they were red-hot iron. Gruesome… and a useful image.

    • I think that might be the Grimm’s version or similar.
      I love this song, and only found the video when I was looking for just the song. I had no TV when the album came out so missed it.
      Thanks for visiting, Esmeralda. Super name, one of my fave characters in Pratchett!!

  3. oh what a wonderful post! this says everything and says it so articulately. “The faery-tale version has the shoes dance away, gruesome but harmless because they can never be filled again by living feet. ” How eloquently captured, that bit of compulsion where if an opportunity were to be left open, it’d be filled again with what ails as and holds us in its grips.

    well done! wow.

    • Thank you, Thea. It is indeed a fact that the slightest opening means a sliding back.
      lovely to see you here and I’m looking forward to your Shakespeare flash fiction..

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  5. Indeed, Kate Bush was recording the Red Shoes album at a time of depression in her own life, having just lost her mother. ‘Moments Of Pleasure’ lists other people she’d lost over the years.

    I get a feeling of her being on automatic pilot on the uptempo songs – Rubberband Girl is her in denial that she’s down and it makes me think of how I was on valium, feeling unreal.

    I wish she could have had some sort of outside ear/eye helping on it.

    • I kind of guessed both from the lyrics and the videos that she’d been through some tough stuff but thank you for confirming this for me.
      I do wish she’d had someone to talk to but then, maybe that’s where the songs help. Writing them releases the pain.
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.x

  6. Great post, and good timing too, I’ve just started reading that book and I’m hooked already.
    Thank you x

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  8. Now I’m bummed. I wanted to watch it.

    “Kate Bush – …”
    This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement from claimants including:

    •Web Sheriff
    •SOFA Entertainment
    •SOFA Entertainment
    Sorry about that.

    But, it seems this is watchable.

    But doesn’t seem to have much impact to me.

    • I haven’t but now you have mentioned it I shall keep an eye out for it. One of the lessons I used to do with my TEFL students was one on fairytales. We’d watch Stardust, then break down what elements are in fairytales, then they were asked to take a traditional fairy tale and rewrite it set in a modern setting but with the same themes, elements and values. I really enjoyed that lesson but it got kyboshed by a DOS who deemed we couldn’t show movies at all, unless it was a maximum of 30 minutes total. The movie I used was 90 minutes, so a short film but it was no-go even though there was a lot of non-watching work went on afterwards, even into the following day’s lesson.

  9. Some mention “Women Who Run With the Wolves” in posts here. One thing Pinkola-Estes mentions in her version of the tale is that the child’s original red shoes represent her own handmade shoes, which cannot be replaced by a more “culturally proper” version. Pinkola-Estes’ interpretation includes obsessions, but also warns against accepting the cultural male-directed norm in lieu of keeping our own conscientious female-knowing nature alive.
    In the tale, the impoverished orphaned wild and feral child is impressed into the position of becoming the wealthier, but trapped tamed and indoctrinated “proper” female. The red shoes she buys are her subconscious attempt to escape the societal restrictions, which she remembers in association with red shoes. Her obsession with the shoes keeps the indoctrinations from getting through to her, but she cannot go back in time. She must dance on and on, punished for her attempt to avoid indoctrination into a society that despises freedom in womankind. Note that her new shoes are not enchanted by the church, not enchanted by the rich BLIND old woman, but by an old man, a crippled soldier with a white beard streaked with (blood) red. The old bloody warrior is the patriarchal villain who turns her burgeoning efforts to escape the trap into an evil parody of running away: she cannot escape it without crippling herself in the world as it is. She has been orphaned of all mother-help.
    Whilst the connection to obsessive behaviors and drugs is helpful for some, this interpretation sans the above parts, puts the entire blame back onto the child-woman instead of the entrapping society, which in this tale is the real villain.
    The object lesson is to be true to yourself, hold on to your values, learn authentic woman-strength, don’t fall for the tales of blind-women already long-tamed; and most especially don’t fall for the con-men who will sell you false red shoes (here you can insert whatever obsession you use to escape your authentic self.) Nor by bloody-beards who bewizard your attempts to find authenticity through flattery and faint praise (here you can insert “how pretty” again: our need to be pretty for males, to dance for their enjoyment, and how it causes us to dance through life unable to be our own true-whole selves.)

  10. On the contrary, I thank you! Your posts and stories are delightful, and show much insight. I can only hope that I help with a deeper-because-older voice in providing harmony to accompany your clear sweet soprano.

  11. Nonsense! I hear in your voice a full range, lovely contralto, soprano and, when you choose, you reach high soprano as well. Not so many have as full a range as you! Called me in, you see. Please keep singing. 😉

  12. Thank you for a wonderful post: i have been thinking a lot about the red shoes of late having finally admitted that I am alcoholic – for me the red shoes are my addiction – and my way of thinking. I posted about this yesterday on my blog, it hits such a chord with me that ive decided to change my blog name to “The Red Shoes” ha! I just reckon that the tale is a perfect allegory for my experiences. At this point Im not sure whether Ive cut my feet off entirely yet – hell im only 2 weeks sober – or if im still to dance manically in the woods. I think i have a long way to go! and thanks also for the reminder that i must read “Women who run with wolves” x

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