Can You Cancan?

Ooh la-la! Long skirts, frilly petticoats, stockings, feathers, whooping and high kicking ladies in a line. This is the saucy and sassy image we conjure up when visualising a performance of the cancan. The outfits hark back to Parisian fashions of the 1890s, but the dance has rather inauspicious origins some 60 years earlier.

cancan 1Influenced by the acrobatic performances of Charles Mazurier the Cancan is as popular today as it was in the 1830s. Please Note: I’ve given this move a whirl and after knocking a glass over I can tell you its not as easy as it looks!

It is said to have begun in 1830, in the working-class dance halls of Montparnasse, Paris, as a lively couples’ ballroom dance. It was initially performed by the men only, but gradually, women began to perform the moves as well. It included high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs, which were said to have been influenced by the acrobatic performances of a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier. Mazurier was well known for jump splits, a later popular feature of the cancan.

The dance was scandalous to polite society, and it became known as the chahut, meaning ‘noise’ or ‘uproar’, or cancan, meaning ‘tittle-tattle’ or ‘scandal.’ Its energetic movements implied a lack of self-control and involved more bodily contact between participants than was deemed acceptable, and more shockingly still, women who danced it became breathless. The dance undermined and challenged social, moral, and political conventions of the time when morality had become almost institutionalised. It also formed part of a growing movement for change, as its popularity grew amongst the lower classes.

As dancers became more skilled and adventurous, it was developed as a dance for individual entertainers, and although a few men were famous for their acts in the 1840-1860s, female performers became more renowned. They were mostly semi-professional, middle-ranking courtesans, but by the 1890s, performers such as La Goulue and Jane Avril were at the top of their game, and could command huge sums of money for appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere. Jane Avril in particular, was immortalised by the painter Toulouse Lautrec. It is this ‘classic’ period that defined the appearance of the typical cancan dancer.

cancan2At the top of her game: ‘Jane Avril Dancing’ by Toulouse-Lautrec


In France, the cancan remained largely a dance performed by individuals, but elsewhere, especially in Britain and America, it became popular in music halls, where it was danced by groups of women in choreographed routines. Bizarrely, this style was imported back to France in the 1920s for the benefit of tourists by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini. He devised the ‘French Cancan’ at the Moulin Rouge. This was a highly choreographed routine of ten minutes or more, which became the fully-fledged display that has survived to the present day.

cancan3The red windmill that needs no introduction: The infamous Moulin Rouge.


If you fancy giving it a whirl, the main moves of the cancan are the battement (high kick), the rond de jambe (quick circular 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 vertically), the cartwheel and the grand écart (the flying or jump splits). Add to this some swishing of the skirts and exuberant whooping, and you have the classic can-can. For inspiration, watch the dance performed in its finest form at the end of Jean Renoir’s 1954 film Cancan. As Toulouse Lautrec once stated:

“La vie est belle, voila le quadrille!”

which translates as ‘life is beautiful, here comes the Cancan!’

More from Karen Averby

Can You Cancan?

Ooh la-la! Long skirts, frilly petticoats, stockings, feathers, whooping and high kicking...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *