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.”
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