Paris has a long tradition of dance. Dance was important in all social strata. In the Belle Époque private Dances were frequently held in the grand mansions owned by the rich, the ‘hôtels particuliers’ and the not so rich danced in public places such as the Jardin Mabille; such places for dancing were known as ‘bals’, and there is a wonderful painting of ‘Le Bal Mobile’ by the French impressionist painter Jean Béraud.
The Bal Mobile was established by a professor of dance known as Père Mabille. He rented land on rue Montaigne and opened the dancing area. At first it was reserved for students, but later he opened up to the public. His sons subsequently turned it into a beautiful garden with paths, lawns, groves, galleries and even a cave. There were 3,000 gaslights, brightly coloured glass globes, and even chandeliers were hung from the trees. There is a wonderful painting of ‘Le Bal Mobile’ enchanted garden by the French impressionist painter Jean Béraud, unfortunately in a private collection. The Bal Mabille soon became the height of fashionable Paris, and the favourite dances were the polka and the can-can.
Back then the cancan was a dance performed by couples. It originated in the more working class ‘bals’ in Montparnasse around 1830 and was a variation of the ‘galop’. Dances in 2/4 time, it included high kicks and extravagant gestures of both arms and legs which later transformed into jump splits. The name cancan meant ‘scandal’ and it was considered to be a little outrageous, especially when danced by boisterous young men.
Eventually it developed into an entertainment at performed by individuals, both men and women, though the women cancan artists became the better known. They were mainly courtesans and their dancing was only semi-professional. It was only later in the 1890s that dancers such as Jane Avril and La Goulue rose to fame and appeared in places such as the Moulin Rouge.
The dance spread to music halls in Britain and America where it was danced as a choreographed chorus line with virtuoso highlights. This style was subsequently re-imported into Paris by Pierre Sandrini who re-choreographed it in the 1920s as the French Cancan for the Moulin Rouge of which he was artistic director and the Bal Tabarin which he co-owned. It became traditional for cancan dancers to wear flouncy underwear which was revealed to the audience provocatively during the routine.
Although many composers have composed music for the Cancan, that most associated with the dance is Orpheus in the Underworld composed by the French composer Jacques Offenbach in 1858; the cancan movement is the ‘Galop Infernal’.
Today there are many Paris Cabarets where you can see the Cancan performed along with other burlesque. The most famous is the Moulin Rouge; a rather racier take on dance can be seen at the Crazy Horse; while the Zebre de Belleville is a little artier; and the Lido de Paris is rather more up-market.
Whatever your taste in dance, if you are visiting Paris, do make a point of visiting a Paris Cabaret; just don’t get too carried away though and start dancing the Cancan at the iDBUS coach station; it is an arrestable offence.