Who invented the raucous high kicks, splits, and derriere-flashing dance sets known as the cancan is not well documented. It all began in France, but it is a bit of a mystery who choreographed and danced it. There is not much information about the exact origin of the cancan to be found. The cancan is supposed to have originated with the final figures of the couples set dance, the quadrille, which featured exuberant arm movements and some high kicks. The cancan evolved from the last figure of the quadrille, a social dance for four or more couples. The exact origin of the can-dog is unclear. Still, the steps may have been inspired by a popular entertainer from the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, who demonstrated the grand écart or jump splits, both popular dance characteristics.
Initially, the dance was considered scandalous, and attempts were made to suppress it. Perhaps this was because women in the 19th century wore pants with an open crotch, and high kicks were intended to reveal more. Despite claims that the Moulin Rouge management did not permit dancers to perform in “revealing undergarments,” there is no evidence that cancan dancers wore special closed underwear. Occasionally, the cancan has been banned, but there is no evidence that it has been banned, as some accounts claim. In the 1830s, cancan dancing at public dance halls was often performed by groups of men, particularly students.
At the beginning of the dance’s popularity, professional dancers appeared, though individuals still performed it, not a chorus line. Some men became cancan stars from the 1840s to 1861, and an all-male group known as the Quadrille des Clodoches performed in London in 1870. Women performers were more famous as compared to male performers. Women, in particular, used the cancan as a means to fight against strict Victorian values. When women were not supposed to be out of breath or show their ankles, lifting their legs into the air would have been very different; it was considered “disreputable” to be so close to another person at the time. The dance challenged political conventions and called for change.
During the 1890s, it became feasible to earn a living as a full-time dancer, and stars such as La Goulue and Jane Avril became well-known for their performances at the Moulin Rouge. Among the most prominent cancan dancers of the time was Valentin le Désossé (Valentin the Boneless), La Goulue’s partner. Dance professionals of the Second Empire and fin de siècle invented the cancan moves, which were later incorporated by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini in the French Cancan at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s and his own Bal Tabarin in 1928. It was a mixture of the individual style of Parisian dance halls and the chorus-line style of British and American music halls.
Tourists throng the Bal Tabarin, still running in Montmartre, where they seek a thrill at the old cabaret where the famous French ‘can-can' was first danced. Many of them have journeyed there to see this famous dance, shown in the picture, said to be the last word in wickedness in the days of yore.
Two modern dancers dancing the ‘can-can' at the Bal Tabarin in Montmartre. The word has spread around the world as to the ‘wickedness' of this famous dance. And tourists from America crowd the Montmartre cabarets to see this dance, which is very much less risqué than a number done on the American stage.