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The Red Shoes: Whose Tune Are You Dancing To?

Some of you may already know this tale, first told by the Danish poet and author Hans Christian Anderson. It is rich in metaphor and tells of how we can lose touch with the voice of our true self, our deep knowing of who we are here in life to be. It is a tale of loss-of-soul and still resonates in our contemporary life today.

I tell here a version the tale, for those of you who may not know it.

Once there was a poor motherless girl. She had no shoes, and so she collected and saved scraps of cloth when she found them and, when she had enough, she stitched them into a pair of red shoes. They were not much, but she loved them and they made her happy.

One day as the child was walking in her ragged dress and red shoes, a magnificent carriage drew up besides her. Inside was an old woman who said she wished to adopt the child, and take her home and treat her like her own little daughter. So the little girl went with her, and was fed a warm meal and given her very own room. When she woke up the next morning she found a clean new dress laid out for her, along with white stockings and shiny black shoes. When she asked where her old clothes and shoes were, she was told they had been taken away and burnt because they were so tatty and dirty.

This made the child very sad, for the shoes she had made with her own hands had given her great happiness. But she hid her sadness, and did her best to be a good girl. She sat and learnt new lessons; how to sit and walk like a proper young lady, when to be silent and when to speak, and indeed all the skills a fine young lady would be expected to have.

But in her heart there was a deep yearning, and she longed to have her red shoes more than anything. So it was that when her coming of age birthday came, the old lady decided to get a special present to celebrate the special day. She took the child to a shoe maker to have a pair of shoes made for the occasion. And the child saw there, in the shoemakers case, a pair of the shiniest, brightest red shoes you have ever seen, made from the finest leather. And she set her heart on having them, even though she knew that bright red was not a colour suitable for fine young ladies to be seen wearing.

The old lady, whose vision was no longer so good and who did not notice the scandalous colour of the shoes, brought the shoes out of the kindness of her heart.

The next day, the child, who was now a young lady, slipped on the red shoes, and danced and skipped with joy. But everyone stared! How scandalous. Such an unbecoming bright red! Surely the old woman could not approve? They informed her and she was indeed very angry. “Never wear those shoes again” she told the young lady.

But the next week, the young lady who had been thinking of the red shoes all week, couldn't resist temptation and she put them back on. And again she danced and skipped, twirling and picking up her skirts. But people stared at her askance and muttered. The old woman's housekeeper ran after the young lady and eventually caught her after a merry chase, and managed to take the shoes from her feet.

The old woman was angry and placed the red shoes on the highest shelf in her room and warned the young lady to never, ever touch them again. But the girl could not forget the shoes, her heart was filled with yearning and she longed to have the shoes again.

One day, the old woman fell ill, and took to her bed in a deep feverish sleep. The girl crept into the room where the red shoes were kept, and once she saw them she could not take her eyes from them. She took them from the high shelf and slipped them onto her feet, fasting the ribbons. Surely wearing the shoes could do no harm? But as soon as her feet touched the ground she was overcome by the urge to dance.

Out of the house she danced, twirling and skipping, waltzing her way through the gardens. The girl did not realise she was in trouble until she wished to return to the house, but the shoes danced her out into the street and then beyond into the fields. She danced and danced into the woods and into the forest until desperately she caught hold of a tree for balance and hopped, trying with one hand to pull off one shoe. But the shoe was stuck fast and her foot jerked and danced in her hand.

So she danced and was danced, through darkening skies and lashing rain, over tracks and hills, through nightfall and sunrise and still she danced. But it was now a terrible dancing and there was no rest. She danced to a churchyard and there a dreadful spirit denied her entry, pronouncing “You shall have no rest, you will dance and dance until you are nothing but skin and bones, until you are shadow of yourself. You will dance through villages but people will bar their doors against you and fear your fate for themselves. You will dance forever”.

The girl pleaded for mercy but the shoes carried her away. In terror and exhaustion, still she danced and whirled, not knowing how to stop. Through ditches, wet fields, briar patches until she danced into the forest near where a woodsman lived. “Please help” she called as she danced near his door. “Please! Please take your axe and cut off these shoes and free me.”

The woodsman took his axe and cut through the ribbons which held the shoes. But the shoes stayed on her feet. And so she cried to him that she would die dancing and that he should cut off her feet. He swung his axe and chopped off her feet. The red shoes with the feet in them carried on dancing away into the forest, away out of sight. And the girl, who was now a cripple, had to find her own way in the world. And she never wished for red shoes again.

The little girl in the story was finding her own way to creative expression in her world, making her own shoes, a metaphor for walking her own path through life. Yet, in stepping into the magnificent carriage, she relinquished some of her own personal power. Then worse, her first creative efforts were taken away and burnt, as they were not deemed good enough. She is denied the opportunity to explore and develop her own creative expression and instead was taught how to fit in. She yearns for what she has lost, and yet nothing will fit the space which aches inside her. The lure of the red shoes, which remind her of the joy she once knew, become an addiction which carry her away down a path not of her own choosing. Indeed they will carry her unto death.

This story speaks of how we can be beguiled by society, and find ourselves living a life which really doesn't seem to fit. We have fallen under the spell of how we are meant to be, how we should fit in and live a proper life. After a while, sometime after many years, we realise something has gone terribly awry. We may feel trapped by responsibility; of staying in a thankless job to pay the mortgage and save for a retirement we will be too old to enjoy. And yet we can find no way out. We have lost touch with our inner knowing, we have given our power away and do not know how to reclaim it.

A part of us recognises this is not life we dreamt of as a child, or even the one we would chose to live if only we had a little bit more money. There is inside of us a yearning, an ache for... what? Something is missing and we may seek to fill that void with habits and activities which distract us from that inner yearning. We may seek solace in food, alcohol and other excesses which, we know, will never restore us to ourselves.

It is easy to scoff at the foolishness of the girl in the fairytale, but, in real life, we often do the same thing. We chase after the things that we think will make us happy and don’t realize that we’re heading down a dangerous path. For what we truly seek is not to be found in the external world.

From the shamanic perspective this is a tale of soul and power loss. As children we are in touch with our deepest wild selves and the voice of our intuition. We know how we would like to be in the world, and at a very young age we begin to start exploring ways to bring the fullest expression of ourself into the world.

This frequently does not fit in with the expectations of our parents, teachers or even society. At a young age, we may decide let go of our vision, our deepest dreams. We decide to fit in. This is not only a relinquishment of personal power, but a deep inner wounding. In choosing to fit in, we may lose a part of our Self. But through the rest of our lives, we can sense its absence.

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?

We may know we are not following our “true path”, that we are in essence dancing to someone else's tune. But what are we to do? How can we re-member that which we lost many, many years ago.

Shamanic healing offers medicine for the soul. It seeks to restore power and wholeness at a soul level. One way to gently remove the proverbial red shoes which have danced us merrily on through life, is through a soul retrieval, or a soul remembrance. This restores to us the vital soul essence which slipped away all those years ago.

The scales fall from our eyes and we see our life with a clear vision. We remember our own dance, and how to listen to the voice of our inner knowing. We can hear once again the music of our own soul. We can choose, for there is always choice, to dance to our own tune.

Blessings, Sarah

For more information about shamanic healing sessions, please contact me directly through my website, or email

Illustrations by: Bakarti Tusuri, Helen Stratton, Melissa West and Orestis Charalambous

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