The Cancan’s history is surprisingly complex, and it’s evolution is unusual, changing over the years from it’s initial appearance as ballroom dance for couples in 1830 to a choreographed stage spectacle which really only became standardized in the 1920’s.
The Cancan is regarded today primarily as a music hall dance, performed by a chorus line of female dancers who wear costumes with long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings, harking back to the fashions of the 1890’s. The main features of the dance are: lifting up and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and suggestive body movements. The dance was also known as the chahut. Both Cancan and chahut are French, Cancan meaning “tittle-tattle” or “scandal”, hence a scandalous dance, while chahut meant “noise” or “uproar”.
The dancers or “High Kickers” as they were called emerged over time and ended up in Paris, France. In the late 19th century Paris was still the dance centre of the world. Today’s Cancan developed from the Galop, a popular dance in the public dancing gardens and dance halls of Paris in the early part of the 19th century. When it first appeared in 1830, the Cancan was really an exaggerated form of the Galop, with high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs, mostly originally performed by men and later by women. It was viewed as shocking by the “respectable” people because it implied a lack of self-control and involved more bodily contact between participants than was thought acceptable. The women in particular were not supposed to become hopelessly out of breath, which the dance’s energy inevitably produced. The Cancan became a device with which to undermine Victorian values, and was part of a growing movement for change.
The dance shocked many in its daring challenge to social, moral, and political conventions of the time when morality had become almost institutionalized. A devoted patron of the Moulin Rouge, the famous painter Toulouse Lautrec, captured it poetically in the exclamation: “La vie est belle, voila le quadrille!” translated to ‘life is beautiful, here comes the Cancan!’
By the 1890’s individual Cancan dancers became very renowned and were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere. In Britain, the USA and Canada, the Cancan achieved popularity in music halls, where it was dance by groups of women in choreographed routines. This style was later imported into France in the 1920’s for the benefit of tourists, and the French Cancan was born-a highly choreographed routine lasting ten minutes or more. The main moves are: the high kick or battement, the rond de jambe (quick rotary movements of the lower leg with knee raised and skirt held up), the port d’armes (turning on one leg, while grasping the other leg), the cartwheel and the grand ecart (the flying or jump splits). The authentic quadrille is very demanding of its performers, each of whom must have superior qualities of balance, rhythm and stamina.