The Incredible Story Of Cancan – Rebellious Parisian Women Who Danced to Liberty
Cancan, the frothy, exuberant, erotic Parisian extravaganza that has captivated generations of tourists, and since the 1830s been closely associated with fading decadent Montmartre dance halls, is in fact a potent record of female emancipation, according to a new history.
Originally, according to Moulin Rouge soloist and choreographer, Nadège Maruta who wrote the recently published L’incroyable histoire du cancan Rebelles et insolentes, les parisiennes mènent la danse (“The incredible story of the French Cancan, rebellious and insolent Parisians behind the dance”, published by Parigramme, and available at 25 euros), the cancan was a means of subversive expression.
Interviewed at the Paris book fair over the weekend (above) by France Musique’s Benoît Duteurtre, she noted the cancan originally danced by men, came to life in the 1830s as a female extravaganza, “originally indeed as a means of subversive expression … a social phenomenon, not so much a dance, as a rebellion or a misdemeanour”.
“These rebellious and insolent Parisians waving their petticoats as the flag of their emancipation were not only mocking the church the institutions, the army but also showing their financial independence. In 1890, in Paris, a worker earned a maximum of 2 francs for a ten-hour day of work. Here at the Moulin Rouge, stars such as, La Goulue, Grille d’Egout or Nini Pattes en l’air were earning 300, 400, 500 francs a day as cancan artistes. For women until then holding down jobs in workshops and laundries, professional dance offered a great opportunity to gain independence”.
The cancan in those early days was “an assault, a series of unrestrained movements, jumps and shrill anarchic screams – a sequence of ‘horseplay’ or ‘cancan ‘ a name earned because the dancing evoked the ‘cry and waddling of a goose or duck’ ”.
The cancan began with the Paris Carnival of 1825 as an improvisation reserved at that time for men. But said Nadège Maruta “by 1830 women also started dancing, a reflection of the reign of anarchy at the time and their dancing mocked the church, the army and the morals of the day. The cancan was political and the cancan was also a moment of feminine liberty” .
The Moulin Rouge , which opened in 1889 soon became the palace of cancan — a bridge between high society dance form and popular dance. Having seen the success of the quadrilles danced at the Elysée Montmartre and the Moulin de la Galette , Joseph Olier (founder of the famous Paris Olympia) and his partner Charles Zidler decided to offer the upscale clientele which came “slumming” at their establishment the “sultry dance” (the cancan ) replete with fake gangsters and false prostitutes, (in the dance troupe however there were real gangsters and real prostitutes who agreed to be extras for a night to supplement their regular income).
According to the Paris Info website: “This joyful and boisterous dance is inseparable from the myth of Paris nights and cabaret atmosphere, immortalized by the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. With its debauchery its alluring petticoats , its famous leg ups and lively music , the gaiety of the French cancan has for almost 150 years continued to delight audiences world wide. If there is one artist who embraced the universe of dance and cabaret with great realism and emotion, it was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). In the 1890s, he immersed himself passionately in the heady bustle of these entertainment halls of the night, for which he designed many posters. Through his paintings, sketches, and lithographs Lautrec tells of Montmartre, Pigalle, the cancaneuses, brothels, captured in facial expressions, gestures, colours and light. Thanks to him the cancan was exposed in the great museums of the world and visitors were able to marvel at the famous dancers he painted, La Goulue, or Jeanne Avril, who were not only his models, his muses, but also … his mistresses.
“The cancan crystallizes still today the image of a frivolous and festive Paris, where fun, provocation and empowerment are the key words. The cancan is also the symbol for some of the first signs of sexual liberation and the emancipation of women, particularly as it was very unpopular with the authorities and the upholders of traditional morality.
The Paris pleasures Guide of 1898, meanwhile, provides this description of the dancers: ‘An army of young girls who are there to dance the divine Parisian cancan with as its reputation requires […] an elasticity in the launching of their legs in the air that leaves us presaging a moral flexibility at the very least….”
In her essay : The contredanse, the quadrille and the cancan: dancing around democracy in post-revolutionary Paris, Clare Parfitt of the University of Chichester notes: “… At the Moulin Rouge, the working class cancan dancer infused the French Third Republic of 1889 with the revolutionary power of the masses of 1789. Like the liberalism it represented, this spectacle was both fascinating and disturbing to the fin-desiecle bourgeoisie. In the new century, this image would be rejected in the attempt to reconstruct France as a modern, industrial nation. But in broader Euro-American culture, the Moulin Rouge cancan remained a potent image of unrestrained, sometimes naïve, sometimes dangerous political liberalism, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first …The cancan was initially danced only by working class men, while their female partners stood still. However, after the Revolution of 1830 the cancan became associated with early feminist and early socialist ideas of expanding the body politic to include women, and people of all classes. The cancan therefore became increasingly associated with female bodies, and cross-class contexts, such as public balls, and later, cabarets…”
Jacques Offenbach – Orpheus in the Underworld Overture
Date : 1858 “Orpheus in the Underworld: Overture” by Rundfunkorchester Köln
Brief biography of the author: Nadège Maruta, ex-soloist of the Moulin-Rouge, choreographer, historian, lecturer, and author of L’Incroyable Histoire du Cancan and Follement Cancan, is a well-known specialist of that festive dance the French Cancan. After a wealth of experience as a Cancan soloist at the Moulin Rouge for 7 years, she embarked on research about the Cancan, and published a book, Follement Cancan (editions du Rocher). In 2002, Jérôme Savary hired her to choreograph Parisian Life, The Merry Widow and La Périchole, which played to packed houses in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the US, and China. In 2005, Maurice Béjart asked her to teach master classes in Cancan and to reshape her choreographs for his best students at the Lausanne Opera. In October 2014, she released her last book L’Incroyable Histoire du Cancan (Parigramme).
Trailer of the 1954 film French Cancan producer Jean Renoir with Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix. Film française.
Story: Ken Pottinger