It's 1878 when we meet Marie, whose father, a tailor, has just passed away. Her mother, a laundress whose love of absinthe trumps her concern for her three daughters, has fallen behind on the rent for their Montmartre tenement. Marie's older sister, Antoinette, is no help. Hot-tempered and difficult, she has lost her place as a paid dancer in the Paris Opera ballet. The burden of earning a living thus falls to Marie.
At thirteen, Marie is several years too old to become one of the "petit rats" of the Opera, the lowest rung of the strictly regimented training program. Still, driven by desperation, she auditions and is accepted into the company. The wages she brings in are meager, and the family remains impoverished. Though the accepted way for dancers to bolster their incomes is to accept the favors of certain male patrons, season ticket holders known as abonnes, Marie resists that path. When Monsieur Degas asks Marie to model for his paintings, she agrees. With her graceful back and her loose-hipped stance, she soon becomes his muse.
As Marie earns a living, Buchanan gives her readers an education. While posing for Degas, Marie sees "...a drawing of a ballet girl sitting slumped on a bench. There is no more to the picture than a few lines of charcoal, a few dashes of pastel, but the exhaustion of the girls is there, in the ribs heaving with each breath, the late night and bellowing father of the evening before, also the long hours at the barre, striving to balance a second longer or land a little softer, the aching thighs rolling open even at rest."