Theatrical poster for Renoir's French Cancan circa 1954.

The cancan, sometimes hyphenated as can-can, was the forerunner to modern burlesque and striptease. In the present day, it 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 and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements.

The Infernal Galop from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld is the tune most associated with the can-can, although a wide variety of musical pieces have been written for both the stage and the cinema, many of them based on Offenbach's composition. While the cancan is now considered a part of world dance culture, and often the main feature observed today is how physically demanding and tiring the dance is to perform, it still retains something of a risque connotation for many.



Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1891.

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 in quick 2/4 time, 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, 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.

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 number of female performers achieved widespread notoriety during 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. The female dancers of the Second Empire and the fin de siècle developed the various cancan moves that were later incorporated by the choreographer 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 combination of the individual style of the Parisian dance-halls and the chorus-line style of British and American music halls (see below).



The cancan as performed in 1920s Paris.

The cancan is danced in 2/4 time, and is now usually performed on stage in chorus-line style. In 19th century France, 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.

Humour and acrobatics played a significant role at this stage of development. In some instances, the dancer would stand close by a patron, betting she could remove his hat without using her hands. Upon taking the bet, the girl would execute a high kick that would take off his hat, simultaneously revealing her underwear to the audience.

This style was imported into France in the 1920s for the benefit of tourists, and the French Cancan was born—a highly choreographed routine lasting ten minutes or more, with the opportunity for individuals to display their specialities. The main moves are the high kick or battement, the 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 and the grand écart (the flying or jump splits). It has become common practice for dancers to scream and yelp while performing the cancan, but this is by no means essential.



Typical reaction to the cancan.

When the dance first appeared in the early 19th century, 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 1950s. 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.

The film Un Quixote Sin Mancha (1969) features a woman of this period being tried over the custody of her child on the grounds that her career path as a dancer is not an appropriate one for raising a child, and not because of her pay. Upper-class characters in the film even hesitate to pronounce the dance's name. Other films set at this time also suggest how the cancan was regarded with disapproval.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the cancan was viewed as much more erotic due to the dancers use of the extravagant underwear of the period, and the contrasting black stockings. They lifted and manipulated their skirts much more, and incorporated a move sometimes considered the most cheeky and provocative bending-over and throwing their skirts over their backs, presenting their bottoms to the audience. The Moulin Rouge dancer La Goulue was well-known for this gesture, and she had a heart embroidered on the seat of her drawers.

It is a myth that the cancan was ever frequently danced without undergarments. This mistaken belief has taken root probably because when the cancan first appeared in working-class dance halls in the 1830s, drawers were not a standard item of underwear. They were adopted in the 1850s because of the advent of the hooped skirt or crinoline. Initially drawers were of the "open" type, being essentially two tubes of material, one for each leg, and this is perhaps another reason for the myth. However, the Moulin Rouge management did not permit dancers to perform in such revealing garments.

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."

In the artsEdit


Theatrical poster for La Dame de Chez Maxim (1950).

Many composers have written music for the cancan. The most famous music is French composer Jacques Offenbach's galop infernal in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). 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 film French Cancan.

French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced several paintings and a large number of posters of cancan dancers. Other painters to have treated the cancan as a subject include Georges Seurat, Georges Rouault, and Pablo Picasso.

Further readingEdit

  • David Price, Cancan! (2010): a highly illustrated history of the dance, music, paintings, films, with contributions from dancers performing today.

External links Edit

  • Legran Studio Composers, CAN CAN Classics Version Mp3·, 2007-6923838 Legran Studio Composers "I Love Classics" Album, Published with the permission of the owner of rights.