Think of the legendary Moulin Rouge! What is the first thing that comes to your mind besides the famous wind mill? Exactly, the iconic row of female dancers in opulent dresses kicking their legs high into the air. This scene is part of the most famous French dance: the Cancan. Also common as Coincoin, it is a fast dance in 2-4-time. The Cancan originated from the last figure of the popular quadrille around the year 1830 in Paris.

Traditionally, the cancan is performed by a chorus line of female dancers. Long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings are their signature costumes. The main features of the dance are the lifting and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and provocative body movements. The most associated music with the cancan is the “Infernal Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld”.

The Origin Of The Name “Cancan”

Until today, it is not entirely clear where the name of the dance comes from. The most common and most plausible explanation is the derivation of “cancan”, an adjustment of the French word “canard”. The French word for “duck” is an allusion to the strong pelvic thrust of the Cancan dancers. According to another version, the name may stem from the Old French word “caquehan” meaning “Uproar”.

 

How Did The Cancan Evolve?

The cancan was initially an eccentric ballroom dance, which was especially popular in the so-called “café-concerts”. The cancan first appeared in the ballrooms of the working class Montparnasse district of Paris around 1830. It was originally a dance for couples who performed high kicks and other gestures with their arms and legs. It is believed that they were influenced by the movements of a popular entertainer of the 1820s called Charles Mazurier. He was famous for his acrobatic demonstrations, which included the “grand écart” that later became a popular feature of the cancan.

In the middle of the 19th century in France, the original cancan was transformed into a stage show dance, which was only listed in variety shows, cabarets and music halls.

Facade of the Moulin Rouge in Paris with its iconic red wind millIn the beginning of the dance’s evolution, the cancan was not just a female domain as we know it today. A few male dancers had reached stardom between 1840 and 1860, although female dancers were much more popular back then already. These were mostly middle-class courtesans such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, who made good money from their appearances in variety shows. These women developed the various cancan moves that choreographer Pierre Sandrini later incorporated in the show “French Cancan”, which appeared at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s and his own Bal Tabarin from 1928.

The world-famous Moulin Rouge in Paris is best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the cancan dance from where it started its triumphal procession across Europe and led to the introduction of cabarets all over the continent.


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Photos by micadew, Michael Cress

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