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Cancan: A way from working-class backstreets to Opera House

Author: 21.10.2014 | art, history, France
Today is the "official" birthday of cancan, on October 21, 1858 it was first performed in Paris. However it had been danced "unofficially" since the beginning of the 19th century. OUTLOOK wishes our readers to feel party and festive atmosphere and join the dance! Thus, today we would like to share unknown facts about movements inseparable from the French culture.

The term "cancan" sounds fun and exciting. It literally means "tittle-tattle" or "scandal". Also it is used when a woman is compared with duck wagging the rear part of the body.

For about fifty years dance wasconsidered as scandalous form of entertainment by high society and performed only in working-class dancing gardens on Paris outskirts. Many cultural experts believe that the cancan is aprecursor of striptease. However, what kind of striptease it is, if men saw only bare legs between stockings and frilly panties - a rhetorical question.

Theatrical producers and directors often dropped into fun pubs and cabarets for inspiration, and they noticed that risqué dance with lively high-kicking was a pure attention getter. Perhaps that is why in 1858 at its own risk and peril the Paris Opera staged Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, where in one of the acts a respectable audience was provoked by boisterous beauties. The success was incredible and public tolerated the once-disreputable dance.

Finally cancan developed into a respected art form that required training and technique by dancers of the famous Moulin Rouge. Admittedly, those ladies with their talents and destiny deserve another story, we will focus only on La Goulue, Alsace native Louise Weber, regarded as a prima dancer at the end of the 19 th century. Her nickname is translated as "glutton" due to her habit to sit down to some visitor’s table after dancing and have a hearty meal at someone else's expense. This woman used to be a true symbol of cancan. In 1990 La Goulue’s remains were transferred to Montmartre Cemetery.

Among men the most famous is Charles Mazurier who was notorious for incorporating jump-splits into his performanceswhich was revolutionary during his time.

La Goulue and other female dancers were immortalized in countless portraits as Moulin Rouge was attended by almost all the artists who lived in Paris in the late 19 th and early 20th centuries. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is particularly known in that kind of art.

Female squeal during the dance came in 1920, when the French choreographer Pierre Sandrini united solo cancan with British ensemble dance.

It is believed that almost all extravagant gestures of arms and legs used during this merry gallop were invented recently. However, according to studies even in the 16 th century peasant girls from Brittany used to have fun in a similar style. And even earlier, in 2400 BC in Egypt some dance resembling fundamental cancan high kicking above the audiences heads was performed that is evidenced by reliefs.

As we know there was no sex in the Soviet Union, and exceptionally decent dances were danced. The thing is that Nikita Khrushchev, guardian of national morality, was not averse to look at the long-legged beauties. During his good-will visit to the United States, the secretary general postponed the state affairs and was taken on to the sound stage for the "Can-Can" movie where he was immediately surrounded by the cast including movie star Shirley MacLaine and her mate dancers. They say that after the tour the head of the Soviet Union became much more amenable to political issues.

Famous Bernard Shaw gave definition of cancan which many consider as canonical "This is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music."

For dessert we offer you three films that can visually demonstrate the beauty of the dance, if in the near future you do not have a chance to go to Paris and spend a night at the famous cabaret.

French Cancan

1954, France, Italy

Son of the famous painter Auguste Renoir, who knows first-hand what the cancan is, filmed a beautiful story about ordinary laundress who became a dance star. The movie is considered the most authentic and reliable.

Variety Lights (Luci del varietà)

1950, Italy

Debut feature film of the great Federico Fellini co-produced and co-directed with Alberto Lattuada. Suitable not only for dance fans, but for moviegoers who are interested to see how the Maestro started.

Moulin Rouge

2001, Australia, USA

If you have not enjoyed singing live and a highly choreographed routine of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, you definitely should fill the gap. Impeccable production from the main wizard of modern costume drama Baz Luhrmann has already become a classic.

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