Cancan: The Forgotten History of France’s Most Famous DanceFinal Project Paper
When one imagines traditional French dance, the cancan immediately comes to mind. Even the dance’s name conjures up images of a troupe of women performing in unison, with the trademark frilly skirts and precise movements synonymous with cancan. However, this fast-paced dance, with its high kicks and jump splits, only evolved into its iconic style in the 1920s, almost 100 years after its conception. The book Cancan! by David Price explores the complete history of the cancan, rather than simply describing the highly popularized style that has been performed since the 1920s. Although many consider the dance to be vintage preservation of old Parisian nightlife, at the height of its popularity in the 1890s the cancan was quite different from the one performed in the Moulin Rouge today. The rich history of the dance is far more complicated than the movements would make it seem.
First originating in the public dance halls and bars of bohemian Montmartre, Paris in the 1830s, the cancan was a dance created by and for the lower classes. Its choreography was seemingly similar to that of the galop and the polka. However, “the cancan may have had its direct influences, but it was as much spontaneous development among the working classes, which was largely a way of letting off steam at the end of a hard day” (Price, 26). It was a working class dance, and was almost unrecognizable from the lavish ensemble spectacles performed today. In fact, it was not even known as the cancan and was typically referred to as the “quadrille.” This was due to the fact that one danced with a partner or in a quartet. The partner component, combined with the risqué nature of the dance, though it was significantly more tame in its early stages, made it a favorite of local grisettes (lower class prostitutes) and the poor students who were usually their customers. Grisettes would show off for music hall patrons, hoping to find a customer for the evening. They moved freely and would stand close to their partners. As the dance grew in popularity, it moved away from the grisettes in the small, bohemian music halls of Montmartre to the larger, flashier Parisian venues. Though Montmartre will forever be the hub and birthplace of the cancan, from the 1830s until 1870 the dance spread throughout all of France and eventually, the world. From American vaudeville performances to London variety shows, the cancan was rapidly gaining recognition. Several stars of the cancan emerged, referred to by the adoring public as cancaneuses. These new dancers were far from the poor grisettes performing in music halls during the birth of the cancan. They were celebrities and professional performers. However, similar to the grisettes, many of the famous cancaneuses were in fact prostitutes, although they were far more sophisticated than the grisettes who created the dance. Referred to as cocodettes, these high-class prostitutes were considered glamorous and wealthy, and were most often who would appear on stage to dance the cancan.
With the change of dancers from grisettes to cocodettes came a change of dance style. The transformation was in part brought on by one of the most famous cancaneuses of all time, Rigolboche. Rigolboche, whose real name was Marguerite Badel, rose to fame in the 1850s. “She said that she was attacked by a form of madness when she danced and that the music affected her so much that she became drunk, as if on champagne” (Price, 34). Her lively, yet graceful style of cancan not only made her a star but made the cancan even more illustrious. The erotic, passionate moves she performed on stage would become staples of the dance as it would move into its heyday in the latter part of the 19th century.
As the 1860s progressed, the cancan was soaring towards newfound popularity and renown. Then, in 1870, the Second Empire of France fell, and the cancan’s trajectory came to a grinding halt. People were disillusioned with the decadence of the Second Empire and longed to move away from the indulgence and luxury of that era. Cancan was seen as a representation of this corruption and was largely forgotten. “In the 1870s, the cancan all but disappeared. It survived as an amateur dance in the places in which it had begun-the bars and dance halls frequented by working men and women” (Price, 45). As the hatred for the lavishness subsided at the beginning of the 1880s, cancan regained popularity and would ultimately reach its heyday during the 1890s. After the hiatus of the 1870s, the cancan returned with a new identity as a representation of freedom and the move towards the turn of the century. It had reinvented itself as a symbol of the modernity of the 1880s, and people quickly stopped associating it with their hatred of the revelry of the Second Empire. With this change in ideology, there came a change in content. Skirt dancing, as well as higher kicks and heightened sensuality, were incorporated. Dancers showed more skin and moved freely and wildly to the music. They flaunted their sexuality and flirted with audience members. Many fixtures of the dance would come from this uninhibited attitude. For instance, the famous move where the dancers would bend over and lift up their skirts to show off their underwear and wiggle their bottoms was created during the 1880s by La Goulue. True to the times, La goulue, who was arguably the most famous cancaneuse of all time, was known to perform this trick without any underwear on for howling audiences. In addition to the iconic underwear pose, her trademark was lifting up her leg to kick the top hat off a male audience member. As evidenced by this coquettish move, La Goulue, along with the other stars of the cancan were sex symbols in addition to performers. The cancan alone had made them famous.“No dancer since the 1890s has ever built her reputation solely on her expertise at this one dance” (Price, 66). Their images and personas were known throughout the world, although they did not perform any other dance or have another claim to fame. This is truly a testament to how popular the cancan was. A cocodette could become a celebrity through the magic of the dance. The cancaneuses’ ability to find fame was of course due in part to the work of acclaimed French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec painted many promotional posters for the Moulin Rouge featuring the cancan, many of which are still recognizable today. In addition to these advertisements, in his own personal work, Toulouse-Lautrec depicted several celebrity cancaneuses such as La Goulue, Jane Avril, and Grille D’Egout. Eventually, the Moulin Rouge moved towards musical performances and stopped featuring cancan dancers. Thus, the cancan moved to the Bal Tabin and finally became the dance we are all familiar with, almost 100 years after its creation.
At the Bal Tabin, Pierre Sandrini choreographed new cancan shows consisting of a large cast of trained dancers (oftentimes ballerinas) that performed elaborate, highly stylized routines in sync. Sandrini was a “classically trained dancer, and in devising the French Cancan he gave the dance a kind of gracefulness and subtlety quite unlike the wild dancing of La Goulue” (Price, 67). Sandrini’s dancers were technically far superior to the cocodettes of times past and danced with modern refinement and elegance. However, there were no longer individual stars of the cancan, and the phenomenon of the cancaneuse was quickly forgotten as a result of the new ensemble numbers. The new cancan girls danced in chorus line style wearing matching costumes, leaving little room for individuality. Additionally, the improvisational and free feeling of the 19th century cancan was lost, as Sandrini’s dancers adhered firmly to his choreography. Still, the public loved it. The new style spread from the Bal Tabin to other popular venues in Paris and is still performed there today.
The Cancan has not changed much in the hundred years since the 1920s. Outside from advancements in set and costume design, the dance is essentially the same as it was when it was performed in the Bal Tabin for the first time. As costuming and show production has evolved, the cancan has become more of a spectacle. Still, the flashy costumes and dazzling sets are always reminiscent of the Bal Tabin. Moreover, the iconic cancan music “Galop Infernal” from the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach will undoubtedly be played at every cancan show. The movement has hardly changed, and the five major cancan steps remain the same. There is the grand écart (jump split), roue (cartwheel), battement (high kick), rond de jambe (rotation of lower leg), port d’armes (hopping with one leg up). These five steps can be seen at any given cancan performance around the world. Their acrobatic nature makes the dance remarkably difficult and keeps the cancan exclusive to the trained ballerina-types Pierre Sandrini introduced.
There are few who know of the cancan’s origins amongst the working class and glamorous, confusing history. To most, the cancan is a silly, sexy dance for tourists visiting Paris. The dance one will find on the stages of the Moulin Rouge today is a far cry from the one belonging to La Goulue. Furthermore, if he were alive today, Toulouse-Lautrec may even turn up his nose at the highly choreographed and stylized routines. The “vintage” reputation belonging to the dance is not fully as accurate to the turn of the century French nightlife scene it is supposed to represent. It is much more accurate to 1920s revelry and performance style, which occurred 90 years after the cancan’s conception. Now, almost 200 years after the birth of the dance, the original cancan of the 19th century remains largely forgotten and tragically misunderstood.
Price, David. Cancan! Cygnus Arts, 1998.
Written by Alex Short