Can Can

[David Price <>] I've written a book entitled "Cancan!".

The U.K. ISBN No. is 1 900541 50 5 and the U.S. ISBN No. is 0 8386 3820 1.

It's a well-illustrated and (I hope) entertaining account of the history of the dance, the colourful personalities involved, the dance-halls and the music (the ballets, operettas and musicals). It also discusses the nineteenth-century influences on the cancan's development, including women's fashions (particularly their underwear), sex and morality and major political changes. It contains chapters on the paintings and films inspired by the dance, and concludes with a chapter on the dance today and its feminist implications.

The cancan developed from the galop, a popular dance in the public dancing gardens and dance-halls of Paris in the early part of the nineteenth 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 initially performed by men, and later also by their female partners. It was viewed as shocking by "respectable" people because it implied a lack of self-control and involved more bodily contact between participants than was thought acceptable.

The cancan had various influences, and some historians have compared it to dances from centuries earlier. It had more direct influences, including the acrobatic performances in the 1820s of one Charles Mazurier, who starred as Jocko the monkey in a revue in Paris. The dancers at the working-class dancing gardens may well have seen him perform and tried to copy some of his actions on the dance-floor.

It evolved over the years from a participatory dance for couples into a professional, choreographed entertainment performed primarily by women. Women had made the dance their own by the time of the Second Empire. Although they often still performed with a partner, it was the individual exploits of the likes of Rigolboche that people came to see. These dancers of the Second Empire were mostly, if not all, middle-ranking courtesans, whereas the famous dancers of the 1890s, like La Goulue, were professionals, earning high wages at the Moulin Rouge. The element of skirt manipulation, essential to the cancan today, only really became part of the cancan in the 1890s, with the appearance of the elaborate erotic underwear characteristic of the turn of the century.

I started my book more than six years ago after a visit to Paris and the Paradis Latin. This cabaret was particularly well choreographed then (I was there again last year, and I thought it had deteriorated) and the climax of the show was the cancan. The audience - who were mostly French - applauded and cheered more than for any other part of the show.

The following day I spent some time in bookshops trying to find out if any book existed on the cancan, and after finding nothing specific my wife said, "Well you'd better write one yourself."

Being no dance expert, I wasn't sure this was a good idea, but I thought I could probably produce something that would satisfy the tourist market. After some initial research at the British Library, I then contacted the Royal Academy of Dancing, thinking that they would probably be unsympathetic to a project on a dance as trivial as the cancan! I was quite wrong, because, as I know now, the cancan is viewed as seriously in the dance world as any other dance, and they felt its history needed to told, because it played a significant part in the development of French dance in the 19th century. Coincidentally, the chairman of the Royal Academy of Dancing is an expert, probably _the_ expert, on 19th century French dance, and he has been a great help and encouragement to me.

The cancan's history is surprisingly complex, and its evolution is unusual, in so far as it actually did evolve, changing gradually over the years from its initial appearance as ballroom dance for couples in 1830 to a choreographed stage spectacle which really only became "standardized" in the 1920s.

There is a lot of confusion over what the cancan is, or was at any stage in its development, and I have tried to expose some of the myths that exist about it in the book. But it's not all dry as dust history, and I hope it will also be an entertaining read. I've always enjoyed the cancan, I freely admit, since first seeing on stage at the age of 10, and I have enjoyed doing the research for the book!

If anyone is interested in finding out more, please contact me, the author, David Price, for further information at:, or my publisher, Cygnus Arts, at: The publisher is Cygnus Artrs in London, and the Associated University Presses in Cranbury, New Jersey. [Get this book from Amazon]

Last modified on: 2000, Thursday April 27.

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