The French Cancan

Written by on July 16, 2013 in French Icons

The legendary French Cancan dance was born in Paris in 1830 and it may surprise you to know that it was in fact derived from an English dance known as a “quadrille”.

When it was first performed in a cabaret show in Paris, the dance which purported to show laundresses frolicking and lifting their skirts, scandalised society and the press of the day were quick to condemn such licentiousness. It is said that the ladies who danced wore risqué underwear and their performance attracted the wrath of the church. Sermons were preached throughout Paris against the demonic dance and the femmes who danced it.

french can-canThe Cancan is a lively affair, full of high kicks and gestures and later versions featured the “grand écart” (jump splits).

The origins of the name are unknown but it is said that “can-can” means tittle tattle or scandal. The dance was also known in its early days as “chahut”, noisy or uproarious and of course the dance was both,a noisy, scandalous event!

The can-can was never banned and gained in popularity through the 1800s. Men as well as women danced the can-can– some men even toured Europe as can-can stars but gradually it was the female dancers of the day who claimed the dance as their own.

In 1889 the famous Moulin Rouge club was built and the dance of the can-can became a star turn, attracting fans from all over the world and gaining the club notoriety and great wealth. It was the time of the Belle Epoque, money flowed freely and people liked to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

Can-can music is varied but French composer Jacques Offenbach’s gallop infernal in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) is the one that most people recognise and is the best loved of all the can-can scores for its frenzied build up and exquisite timing.

french can-can The posters of the aristocratic artist Toulouse-Lautrec perfectly captured the bohemian mood of the dance and the colourful and exotic nature of the dance.

The Cancan has remained a firm favourite in France and around the world. The Cancan and Moulin Rouge have found admirers and fans throughout the years since it first began and especially in film.

In 1955 Jean Renoir, the son of famous painter, Auguste Renoir made the film “Cancan”. Set in 1890s Paris, the story is that Henri Danglard is the owner of a cafe, which features his mistress, Lola, as a belly dancer. Losing money, Henri finds himself in Montmartre and finds that the old-fashioned can-can is still being performed there. Inspired, Henri comes up with a new business scheme that aims to revive the can-can, featuring a new dancer, Nini, a laundress he meets by chance. It is romantic, erotic, sentimental and quite fictional – the colours are spectacular and give the film a feeling of a great painting in action – a tribute to Renoir’s famous father.

french can can


Auguste Renoir himself was very familiar with the Moulin Rouge and the can-can dancers.  When Louise Weber met Auguste Renoir in the early 1880’s, she was a pretty, vivacious 16 year old with a fun personality (1866-19289) who liked to dance. She “borrowed” clothes of the rich ladies from her mother’s laundry to wear at the dance halls and when she met Renoir he introduced her to nude modelling for artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and photographers. From there she went on to become one of the most famous Moulin Rouge dancers and the highest-paid performer of her day. She was known as “La Goulue” (The Glutton) thanks to her habit of dancing past the tables of clients and downing their drinks in one gulp! Famous for the red silk heart she wore on her bloomer and a high kick that would knock hats of the heads of the gentlemen as they sat in open mouthed admiration!



Trailer from the film Cancan, 1954 by the legendary French film director Jean Renoir, son of painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, it is clear to see the hand of the artist in this fabulously colourful, picturesque film with its wonderful costumes, beautiful dancers, Edith Piaf singing – this is a glorious celebration of the French Cancan (the word is un-hyphenated in French).

Other films include the 1960 “Can-Can” starring Shirley Maclaine, Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier and featured the fabulous song “I Love Paris”.

Baz Lurhhman’s 2001 film “Moulin Rouge” featured Nicole Kidman as cabaret performer Satine who falls in love with a penniless writer played by Ewan McGregor. Famous for its glorious colourful costumes and scenes and great contemporary music.

The French can-can continues to find devotees and enthusiasts to this day…

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