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Archive for the ‘night life’ Category

The origin of cancan, the wild whirl of petticoats and kicking legs, can be traced back to the 1830’s. The dance was born in the public balls and guinguettes where the working class men and women discharged their energy in a rough display of seduction on the dancing floor. The cancan was later choreographed for the stage and became the chorus dance we now associate with the Belle Epoque Paris. To the 19th century public, the dance was scandalous to the extreme, hence the word cancan (scandal). Mark Twain, visiting Paris in the 1860’s, left us the following account:

 One night we went to the celebrated Jardin Mabille, but only stayed a little while. We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life, however, and therefore the next night we went to a similar place of entertainment in a great garden in the suburb of Asnières. We went to the railroad depot toward evening, and Ferguson got tickets for a second-class carriage. Such a perfect jam of people I have not often seen – but there was no noise, no disorder, no rowdyism. Some of the women and young girls that entered the train we knew to be of the demimonde, but others we were not at all sure about.

The girls in our carriage behaved themselves modestly and becomingly all the way out, except that they smoked. When we arrived at the garden in Asnières, we paid a franc or two of admission an entered the place which had flower beds in it, and grass plots, and long, curving rows of ornamental shrubbery, with here and there a secluded bower convenient for eating ice cream in. We moved along the sinuous gravel walks, with the great concourse of girls and young men, and suddenly a domed and filigreed white temple, starred over and over and over again with brilliant gas jets, burst upon us like a fallen sun. Nearby was a large, handsome house with its ample front illuminated in the same way, and above its roof floated the Star-Spangled Banner of America.

“Well,” I said. “How is this?” It nearly took my breath away.

Ferguson said an American–a New Yorker–kept the place, and was carrying on quite a stirring opposition to the Jardin Mabille.

Crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages were frisking about the garden or sitting in the open air in front of the flagstaff and the temple, drinking wine or coffee or smoking. The dancing had not begun yet. Ferguson said there was to be an exhibition. The famous Blondin was going to perform on a tightrope in another part of the garden. We went thither. Here the light was dim, and the masses of people were pretty closely packed together. [...]

The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up and then–I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned “cancan”. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman, tripped back again grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis-à-vis that must have infallibly removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.

That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that straightlaced description which is shocked at trifles.

 I moved aside and took a general view of the cancan. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O’Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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From Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton. Text written in 1873.

Fulton was one of the incomprehensibly rich American tourists who invaded Paris two years after the twin calamities of the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Second Empire. In 1871, the city was ruined by Prussian bombardment and the Commune of Paris revolution, both responsible for destroying and damaging many public buildings. It is therefore surprising that Fulton never mentions the wounds Paris had sustained. In the two years that followed, Paris seems to have risen from the ashes to dazzle the foreigners as it did under the reign of Napoleon III.

The boulevards of Paris, extending for miles through all sections of the city, present a gay scene at night. The thousands of cafés, brilliant with gas-jets, have their tables out on the broad pavements, and from eight to ten o’clock in the evening it is difficult to obtain a seat in any of them. Ice-cream and coffee is the extent of the Parisian’s indulgence though a few add a little cognac to their coffee. They spend their summer evenings in promenading the boulevards and occasionally stopping for a cup of their favourite beverage.

The sidewalks of the boulevards are at least thirty-five feet wide, and in many prominent places, women are stationed along the curb-stones with chairs to rent, on which those who are tired may for a few centimes rest themselves and view the promenaders as they pass. The broad streets are also filled with carriages so that it is difficult to effect a crossing. They are required by law to have their lamps burning.

Strangers in the city who wish to view these gas-light scenes generally engage carriages and drive slowly through the different boulevards, and a vast number of carriages are constantly passing to a from the various places of amusement. Everybody seems happy and intent upon enjoyment.

[…] The stores are not only brilliantly lighted, but nearly all of them  have rows of gas-lights on the outside, making the streets almost as light as day.

The display of the stores last night on the Boulevard des Capucines exceeded anything we had ever before seen even in Paris. […] The tasteful  arrangement of the goods, the disposition of the lights, and the reflection in the side-glasses with which the shop-windows are always provided, presented a continuous spectacle of surpassing beauty. Ten years ago the Palais Royal was the great central attraction of Paris, but the boulevard stores have so greatly excelled these small establishments that it is now comparatively deserted at night. The hundreds of jewellers’ windows were sparkling with diamonds and precious stones, and even the fancy and dry-goods stores tried to excel one another in the effort to attract attention of the throngs of promenaders.

We walked through some of these central boulevards for nearly two hours, and everywhere the pavements were so filled that it was difficult for three to walk abreast without being continually jostled by the promenaders. This was also the case in the arcades running through the interior of the squares, where the display was similarly attractive. The best possible order was everywhere preserved and the gensdarmes, with their huge cavalry-swords, stood like statues on the corners of the streets, having no occasion to do more than remain quietly at their posts.

There being no cobble-stone pavements in Paris, the carriages and omnibuses make little or no noise as they glide along the smooth asphaltum, nor is there any dust for them to stir up to vex the eyes and the lungs of the people. The sweeping machines are going all night and until ten o’clock in the morning, making the streets as clean as they could be swept with a corn-broom by hand, and lest any dust should be left in the crevices, they are washed off with hose.

In short, Paris is grand. She has passed through her tribulations, and has again presented herself to the world more beautiful and attractive than ever. That the world is pleased is evident from the many thousands of strangers now lingering here to enjoy the brilliant spectacle.

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