The can-can: how Offenbach became associated with the risqué 19th century dance
Christopher Cook explores how a dance from a famous Offenbach operetta became the soundtrack to Paris’s risqué can-can
Squeals and shouts! The dancers erupt onto the floor, perhaps with handstands and cartwheels. Acres of frothy, lacy, white petticoats are rustled and shaken with more than a glimpse of stocking tops as the dancers form a line for the can-can.
There are high kicks above the shoulder, feet in tight-buttoned black boots, as the music grows wilder, and skirts are tossed up at the back revealing the dancers’ bottoms. And then the pièce de résistance: the dancers leap in the air and in unison perform the splits spread out on the floor – the celebrated grand écart.
All this to the music of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Galop Infernal’ from his 1858 opera Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus and the Underworld) – convincing proof that Hades is more fun than Heaven.
Who invented the can-can dance?
Offenbach (1819-80) is forever associated with the can-can, yet he was only a young boy when it was first danced. It was created by working men and women who frequented Parisian dance halls in the 1830s, and it allowed them to let off steam and, more importantly, get physically closer to each other than their social betters thought fitting.
Thirty years later, in the heyday of Napoleon III’s rickety French Second Empire, which Offenbach merrily teased in his greatest operettas, the first professional dancers took to the floor.
There was Rigolboche, born Marguerite Badel, a legendary star who overcame her plainness by the fervour of her dancing. As one writer reported, crowds gathered round her to watch ‘that whirling mass of limbs and lingerie’. Her protector, the Duc de Gramont-Caderousse, once coaxed her into walking naked from one restaurant to another across the Boulevard des Italiens. Always practical, Rigolboche simply bribed the policeman on duty.
Her great rival was Finette, whose time in the Paris Opéra’s corps de ballet gave her a technical edge as a dancer. Finette’s high kicks were legendary, and she won 1,500 francs at an Opéra ball when she kicked a gentleman’s hat off his head.
She claimed – unconvincingly – to have invented the grand écart; and it was Finette who convinced the English that Paris was naughty but very nice when she appeared at the Lyceum Theatre in 1867 in a pantomime written by WS Gilbert, who recorded that the rehearsals ‘were a wild scramble.’ The Prince of Wales was regularly in the audience when Finette danced.
Both Finette and Rigolboche danced at Paris’s Bal Mabille, perhaps the most celebrated of the Second Empire dancing gardens. The Mabille boasted gas lighting and a full orchestra, and attracted a distinguished clientele, including the poet Baudelaire and the artist Gustave Doré, who designed the first production of Orphée aux enfers.
They rubbed shoulders with distinguished visitors from home and abroad, including The Prince of Wales. Here the appeal wasn’t simply the can-can but a chance to observe the courtesans of the demi-monde: Blanche d’Antigny, Alphonsine Plessis (who danced the can-can at the Mabille with her lover Alexandre Dumas Fils and would become the model for Verdi’s La traviata) and Cora Pearl, born Eliza Emma Crouch somewhere in London, who persuaded Offenbach to allow her to sing Cupid in the 500th performance of Orphée. She got through the first night but subsequently was jeered by students and tactfully withdrew after 12 performances.
Where does the Can-Can song come from?
Offenbach knew the Bal Mabille and was familiar with both the can-can and the dancers Finette and Rigolboche. Always a practical man of the popular theatre, he knew what held his audience’s attention, particularly the popular dance forms of the day – the waltz, the quadrille and the galop, which would become synonymous with the can-can. He and his fellow composers turned a nice profit by selling sheet music of such dances to be played at home. Three years before Orphée, Offenbach had composed a galop for his early operetta Ba-ta-clan in 1855.
The galop is a type of dance that ratchets up the excitement for an audience. It’s frenetic and grows ever wilder. The simple, three-chord harmony of the ‘Galop Infernal’ from Orphée aux enfers, its pulsating bass rhythm and the dancing melody have a remarkable effect on the listener, and there’s scarcely time to pause for breath as the tempo speeds on.
An analogy might be the excitement experienced on board a steam train as it picks up pace. The 1860s witnessed the spread of railways in France and elsewhere in Europe. Here, perhaps, is a dance that captures the spirit of an age where the journey matters more than the destination.
How did the can-can challenge social order?
The can-can challenged social mores in terms of etiquette and attitudes to sex, as women danced with Bacchic abandon and flaunted their undergarments. David Price, the historian of the can-can, argues that the dance and Offenbach and his librettists’ sharp eye for the peccadilloes of the Second Empire neatly coincided.
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‘By the time [Offenbach] had found his true forte as a composer of satirical operetta, the [can-can] had become more polished, and he clearly felt able to exploit its potential. So the inherent subversiveness of the can-can and his natural inclination to poke fun at contemporary society inevitably (eventually) converged.’
The Second Empire, heartless, greedy and amoral, made pleasure an art form. But it ended on the battlefield at Sedan in 1870 when Prussia called Louis Napoleon’s military bluff and the Emperor went into exile.
The can-can continued, and experienced a golden age in the 1890s. As with every ‘golden age’, it’s important to detach the myths from the history. So Offenbach did not invent the can-can, not all the dancers were prostitutes, it was not frequently danced without knickers, and the Anglo-Saxons did not ban it as amoral.
What happens in late 19th-century Paris is that the dance is professionalised as part of a theatre spectacle and ruthlessly marketed as the ‘essence’ of Paris. It was a must-see for every visitor, particularly at the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre which opened in 1889 with two stars, Jane Avril and La Goulue, so nicknamed because as an adolescent she was known for guzzling cabaret patrons’ drinks while dancing.
Both dancers were portrayed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who also designed celebrated posters for their performances. (It is said that his first poster for La Goulue was so popular that collectors tore it off the walls.) Jane Avril, wistful and sad in so many of Lautrec’s images, was more a ‘skirt dancer’ than a can-can specialist. But La Goulue was the real thing.
By now the dance, known as the quadrille naturaliste, had been formalised into an agreed set of movements. It may have ended with the grand écart but on the way the quadrille naturaliste borrowed the American idea of the chorus line. La Goulue was the supreme exponent of this formal version of the can-can, and her dancing was described in 1892. ‘From the start, her cheeks glow like ripe peaches, her wild hair flies about like gossamer threads. No method, no order, but a sure sense of rhythm … she constantly searches for the risqué gesture of the hand, the foot, the whole body; she finds it, she imposes it and the audience applauds. La Goulue is an enchantress.’
The can-can, perhaps, has become the dance of a liberated woman who earns her own living and needs no protector.
In four years La Goulue made enough money to start her own business. But she was a better dancer than a businesswoman. She had coaxed Toulouse-Lautrec to paint some panels for her fairground theatre, but she was forced to sell and eventually died in poverty in 1929. But the dance goes on, with Offenbach, so to speak, always on the podium.