Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Origins of one of the world's most celebrated forms of Dance... that No one CanCan seem to Agree on

The claims as to the origin of the ever-popular CanCan are as high falootin as the show girls' kicks.  My research on this is so incomprehensibly jumbled I am going to dispense with all quoting, paraphrasing proper referencing and credits due, and simply cut and paste what I found and list the sources at the end.  

Suffice it to say, their is a dance called the CanCan... and here are the claims to its evolution.  I herein include official CanCan music (the Galop form Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld) to help ease the confusion.... perhaps I should have included a glass of absinthe!

From Wikipedia: The [CanCan] ... is a high-energy and physically demanding music hall dance, traditionally performed by a chorus line of female dancers who wear costumes with long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings. The main features of the dance are the lifting up and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements."
Origins (fasten your seatbelts, it's sure to be a bumpy post)

"The earliest evidence of Cancanish dancing was found on a wall frieze in a tomb in Egypt in 2500 to 2350 BC, depicting a line of dancers kicking their legs over their heads. The Triori of 1549 from South Brittany was very similar to today's cancan; the women danced alone, lifting their dresses up in front and kicking their legs to the ceiling. 

The CanCan [as we know it] is a hybrid of the Polka and the Quadrille and was said to be first danced in 1822, and by 1830 was being outlawed for a number of years as immoral and indecent and prohibited by the police. The cancan first appeared in the working-class ballrooms of Montparnasse in Paris around 1830. It was a more lively version of the galop, a dance which often featured as the final figure in the quadrille. The cancan was, therefore, originally a dance for couples, who indulged in high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs. It is thought that they were influenced by the antics of a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, who was well known for his acrobatic performances as Jocko the Monkey, which included the grand écart or jump splits—later a popular feature of the cancan. 

At this time, and throughout most of the 19th century in France, the dance was also known as the chahut. Both words are French, cancan meaning "tittle-tattle" or "scandal", hence a scandalous dance, while chahut meant "noise" or "uproar". The dance did cause something of a scandal, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. Occasionally people dancing the cancan were arrested but it was never officially banned, as is sometimes claimed. Throughout the 1830s, it was often groups of men, particularly students, who caused the most outrage by dancing the cancan at public dance-halls. In 1845, La Princesse Celeste de Mogador (Morocco?), Introduced the Can-Can Eccentrique at the Bal Mabille, Bal Montesquieu, Bal de la Citb dAntin and the Bal Valentino. It was performed by all walks of life. By 1848, it was frowned upon by the police as being too risqué.  It was considered little more than a scandalous activity that young people indulged in, similar to how rock and roll would be perceived later in the 1960s. 

It was later introduced to England at the Oxford Music Hall sometime in the 1860's by the proprietor Charles Morton along with a troupe headed by Imre Kiralfy and his brother Bolossy along with their sister Aniola. The British were shocked by the indecency of the dance, but in Paris the popularity of the Cancan was still growing.  The Can-Can's first American public stage performance (not a saloon) was in the "Black Crook " at Niblo's Gardens in New York, September 12th., 1866, this production was a milestone in dance and theatre and helped to start Burlesque theatre.

As performers of the cancan became more skilled and adventurous, it gradually developed a parallel existence as entertainment, alongside the participatory form, although it was still very much a dance for individuals and not yet performed on stage by a chorus line. A few men became cancan stars in the 1840s to 1860s, and an all-male group known as the Quadrille des Clodoches performed the dance in London in 1870. But women performers were much more widely known in this period. They were mostly middle-ranking courtesans, and only semiprofessional entertainers—unlike the dancers of the 1890s, such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, who were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere. 

Dance Form

In France in the 19th century the cancan remained a dance for individual entertainers, who performed on a dance floor. In the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, the cancan achieved popularity in music halls, where it was danced by groups of women in choreographed routines, chorus-line style. The female dancers of the Second Empire and the fin-de-siècle developed the various cancan moves that were later incorporated by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini in the spectacular "French Cancan", which he devised at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s and presented at his own Bal Tabarin from 1928. This was a highly choreographed routine lasting ten minutes or more which combined the chorus-line style of British and American music halls and the individual style of the Parisian dance-halls which provided the opportunity for individual dancers to display their specialities.

Featured moves include: 

  • high kick or battement
  • rond de jambe (quick rotary movement of lower leg with knee raised and skirt held up)
  • the port d'armes (turning on one leg, while grasping the other leg by the ankle and holding it almost vertical)
  • the cartwheel
  • the grand écart (the flying or jump splits). 
  • dancers were also adept at removing men's hats with a single high kick.
It has become common practice for dancers to scream and yelp while performing the cancan, but this is by no means essential. The men's cancan uses the battement, along with backflips, cartwheels, and splits; it is intended to show off the dancer's energy and athletic ability.


In the mid-19th century, when the dance was emerging from the working-class dance-halls into the mainstream, it was thought to be extremely inappropriate by "respectable" society. This was due, in great part, to the dancers' revealing of their undergarments  and contrasting black stockings. They lifted and manipulated their skirts a great deal, and incorporated a move considered cheeky and provocative—bending over and throwing their skirts over their backs, presenting their posteriors to the audience. Legendary Moulin Rouge dancer La Goulue was well known for this gesture, which showcased a heart embroidered on the seat of her bloomers.  It is urban legend that the cancan was commonly performed sans undergarments... although La Goulue was reported to have done so on occasion. Bloomers were adopted in the 1850s with the advent of the crinoline hoop skirt.

Whatever its exact origin, the CanCan is currently embraced as a part of world dance culture, characterized by it's fast pace, energetic athleticism and bawdy presentation, which by today's standards would not even cause a flutter on the risque-o-meter.  The moves are acrobatic, grand flowing skirts dazzling, and the music infectious.  Just like rock 'n' roll, the CanCan is here to stay!

C'est ca.

....a few more tidbits to be digested as the credits roll...

CanCan In the arts (wikipedia stuff I think)

Many composers have written music for the cancan. Early editions of the Oxford Companion to Music defined the cancan as "A boisterous and latterly indecorous dance of the quadrille order, exploited in Paris for the benefit of such British and American tourists as will pay well to be well shocked. Its exact nature is unknown to anyone connected with this Companion."

The most famous music is French composer Jacques Offenbach's galop infernal in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). In the 1890's the Can-Can was done to March and later Ragtime music. The ballet by Massine (b.1894) was an excellent example of the Can-Can, titled "Gaite' Parisienne " (1938), which later was made into a movie, "The Gay Parisian." Other examples occur in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow (1905) and Cole Porter's musical play Can-Can (1954) which in turn formed the basis for the 1960 musical film Can-Can starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Some other songs that have become associated with the cancan include Khachaturian's Sabre Dance and the music hall standard Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.

The cancan has often appeared in ballet, most notably Léonide Massine's La Boutique fantasque (1919) and Gaîté Parisienne, as well as The Merry Widow. A particularly fine example can be seen at the climax of Jean Renoir's 1954 filmFrench Cancan.

[The Moulin Rouge and CanCan were single-brushedly immortalized by french artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who] produced several paintings and a large number of posters of cancan dancers, as can be seen throughout this post. Other painters to have treated the cancan as a subject include Georges Seurat, Georges Rouault, and Pablo Picasso.

Supermarket chain ShopRite, headquartered in New Jersey and found in the mid-Atlantic region, uses the cancan in animated commercials twice a year to advertise their large sale on canned goods. In January 2011, that store is running a special commercial to note that they are celebrating their 40th anniversary of their Can-Can Sale.

Totally Plagiarized Sources:

great source! (and used as basis for the Wikipedia CanCan page)