High-kick Your Way Into the History of the Can-Can

The earliest evidence of the Can-Can was found on a wall frieze in a tomb in Egypt from between 2500 and 2350 B.C.
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The first recognized appearance of the Can-Can was in the working class ballrooms in Montparnasse, Paris in 1830. The Can-Can evolved from the Galop which was danced in 2/4 time and was reminiscent of the Quadrille that made it’s way around Europe. Since it was derived from the Galop, the Can-Can was originally a dance for couples. This soon changed, and the Can-Can became more of a lively dance performed on stage in a chorus line style. In addition to the public performances, the Can-Can was performed in private by courtesans to seduce clients. With the development of the dance form, it changed from a provocative dance to a polished, technical, and respectable dance mainly dominated by women.

The term Can-Can literally means “tittle-tattle,” or “scandal,” and scandalous it was.The Can-Can is thought to have been influenced by popular entertainer, Charles Mazurier. Mazurier was notorious for incorporating jump-splits into his performances, which was revolutionary during his time (1820’s.) As the dance developed, it began to incorporate the jump-splits, high-kicks, rond de jambs en lair, port d’arms, and cartwheels. The main purpose of the dance was to entertain, so there was never a lack of movement in the upper or lower bodies. The artist who designed the Moulin Rouge, Adolphe Willette, described the Can-Can as, “a whirlwind of pleasures and vices.”

As the dance progressed throughout the 19th century, the performers were seen in places such as the Moulin Rouge, and were very well paid. However, there were attempts to repress the dance form. Costumes and movements were influenced by the morality, politics, and fashion in Paris at that time, but it was thought to be too sexual and suggestive.

Typically, female performers would wear long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings to add attention to the legs during the high-kicks. The long skirts were also used to conceal lacy undergarments. The skirts were imperative for the performance as the dancers would manipulate and lift up the skirts during the dance. For men, the dress code was not as strict. It was more about showing off their athleticism rather than sexuality. The costuming and high energy movements paired well with the upbeat music that was played in 2/4 time. One of the most recognizable songs for the Can-Can is “Gaite Parisienne,” composed by Jacques Offenbach.
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The Can-Can reached it’s peak in the early 1900’s. Gone were the days that it was considered a scandalous form of entertainment in Parisian night clubs. It developed into a respected art form that required training and technique. To this day, the Can-Can is still danced and performed, and most people can recognize the Can-Can if they were to see it. It can also be seen in some classical ballets as well as theaters to this day. Famous painter Toulouse-Lautrec, supporter of the Moulin Rouge had this famous quote, “La vie est belle, voila le quadrille,” which translates to, ‘life is beautiful, here comes the Can-Can.’

By: Skylar Hartz

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One thought on “High-kick Your Way Into the History of the Can-Can

  1. Skylar,
    Wow! The can-can can do what it aims to, which is to be scintillating and playful. You did a goo job at putting the imagery together and culminating it with a video. I did not realize the can can imagery was posted on an Egyptian tomb frieze so early in human history. I would have loved to have seen this image. After watching the video, I wonder why folks are still so enamored of this form since it is quite simple in dimension. Yet it is about entertainment, which it does well.

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