This joyous and spirited dance, immortalised in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and in films from France or Hollywood, is an integral part of the legends of Parisian cabarets and nightlife. Nearly 150 years on, with its profusion of frilly petticoats, its famous high kicks and rousing music, the infectious gaiety of the French cancan continues to delight audiences from all over the world.
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More than just a dance: a social phenomenon
In the mid-19th century, the term “cancan” referred to a “quadrille”, a kind of square dance. It drew its inspiration from the lives of laundry-women, who had a mischievous habit of proudly flashing their clean petticoats, and gave rise to a popular dance, a way for working-class women to express their rejection of authority - in other words, a harmless provocation. From the 1860s, galvanized by the popularity of this dance, also known as the “chahut” (uproar), the music halls of Paris decided to turn it into a show.
Soon everybody who was anybody in Paris could share in the art of petticoat-swishing and lace-clad derrière-flashing. The leg was kicked as high as possible to reveal a tantalising glimpse of stocking-top, along with all manner of contortions and acrobatics, set to the furious rhythm of Offenbach’s music, which largely contributed to the success of the French cancan and the reputation of the Parisian cabarets.
The fascinating suppleness of the dancers, legs sheathed in black stockings and suspenders, their dizzy cleavage and the sound of those characteristic yells as they tripped the light fantastic - all this gave these queens of entertainment an image that was far from that of shrinking violets. So it was that, in the Guide des plaisirs de Paris, published at the end of the 19th century, the cancan dancers were presented as “an army of young ladies who are there to dance the divine Parisian “chahut”, as its reputation requires […] with a flexibility when they kick their legs into the air that suggests a moral looseness of a similar degree…”. The phenomenon even crossed the Atlantic to the saloons of the Far West, for the great pleasure of the cowboys. Ah, those Parisian girls!
Among the imaginatively-named cancan dancers of the Belle Epoque, a chosen few have been preserved for posterity in the annals of Paris by night: La Goulue, Nini Patte-en-l'air, la Môme Fromage and Jane Avril, known as Jane la Folle by her fellow-dancers…
Nini Patte-en-l'air could be considered to be a veritable founder of the French cancan, inspired by the quadrille invented in 1850 by Céleste Mogador, lead dancer of the Bal Mabille, once to be found on the Champs-Elysées.
The steps of the French cancan developed gradually, by word of mouth in the first instance, with the older dancers teaching the new arrivals. At the time, the only way to learn this dance was through the lessons given by the school of Nini Patte-en-l'air.
As well as the high kick or the cartwheel, the main figures have evocative names, often of military inspiration, like “port d'arme” (literally to shoulder arms: turning on one leg while grasping the other leg by the ankle and holding it almost vertically), “mitraillette” (machine-gun fire) and “pas de charge” (at the double), not forgetting the leapfrog and the flying or jump splits.
It wasn’t long before the men got hold of this traditionally female dance and joined the ladies on the stage, to show off their acrobatic prowess. Valentin le Désossé, also known as the “Homme du Quadrille”, is the most famous of them all.
From Toulouse-Lautrec to Hollywood
The artist that best and most realistically grasped the universe of Parisian dances and cabarets had to be Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). During the 1890s he threw himself with a passion into the intoxicating maelstrom of these nocturnal haunts, even designing posters for them.
Lautrec’s paintings, sketches and lithographs tell of Montmartre, Pigalle, the brothels and the cancan girls, capturing gestures, expressions, colours and light. Thanks to him, the French cancan can now be seen in major museums and visitors all over the world can admire these famed dancers, La Goulue or Jane Avril, who were not only his models and his muses, but also... his mistresses.
The film industry jumped on the bandwagon by turning its projectors onto the mad world of cancan and cabarets. A memorable example is Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954), with the great Jean Gabin, where Nini, a laundress in 1900s Montmartre, becomes a star of the French cancan.
More recently, the US box office smash, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) puts the spotlight on Montmartre and its dancers once again. A star-studded cast led by Nicole Kidman, extravagant sets and costumes and a stunning soundtrack all make this love story between a poet and a cabaret star an international hit, which glorifies even further the Parisian legend.
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