A Brief History of Can-Can

Image: Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Troupe (La Troupe de Mademoiselle Églantine), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1896, (Source: Wikipedia)

The Can-Can is a high-energy, physically demanding dance that became a popular music hall dance in the 1840s, continuing in popularity in French cabaret to this day. Originally danced by both sexes, it is now traditionally associated with a chorus line of female dancers. The main features of the dance are the vigorous manipulation of skirts and petticoats, along with high kicks, splits, and cartwheels.

The Can-Can is believed to have evolved from the final figure in the quadrille, a dance that was fashionable in late 18th- and 19th-century Europe and that was performed by four couples in a rectangular formation. The exact origin of the dance is obscure, but the steps may have been inspired by a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, well known for his acrobatics, including the grand écart or jump splits.

The dance was considered scandalous, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. This may have been partly because in the 19th century, women wore pantalettes, which had an open crotch, meaning that a high kick could be unintentionally revealing. There is no evidence that Can-Can dancers wore special closed underwear, although it has been claimed that the Moulin Rouge management did not permit dancers to perform in “revealing undergarments”. Occasionally, people dancing the Can-Can were arrested, but there is no record of it being banned.

A few men became Can-Can stars in the 1840s to 1860s and an all-male group known as the Quadrille des Clodoches performed in London in 1870. However, women performers were much more widely known. The early Can-Can dancers were probably prostitutes, but by the 1890s, it was possible to earn a living as a full-time Can-Can dancer.

The Can-Can was introduced in America on 23 December 1867 by Giuseppina Morlacchi, dancing as a part of The Devil’s Auction at the Theatre Comique in Boston. It received an enthusiastic reception. The Can-Can became popular in Alaska and Yukon, Canada where theatrical performances feature Can-Can dancers to the present day.

The Can-Can is now considered a part of world dance culture. Often the main feature observed today is how physically demanding and tiring the dance is to perform, but it still retains a bawdy, suggestive element.