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The CanCan Dance: History and Photos of the High-energy, Physically Demanding Dancers of the 20th Century

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.

#1 A Kick Coming

A Kick Coming

The audience as well as the performers get their kicks in uninhibited style when the famed Cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge give out with their free-wheeling footwork like this.

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#2 International Radio Exhibition in Berlin with the ladies of the television ballet dancing a can-can, 1989

International Radio Exhibition in Berlin with the ladies of the television ballet dancing a can-can, 1989

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#3 Stage show in homage to past cabaret acts with reference to Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue and Aristide Bruant, who were frequent visitors to the Moulin Rouge at the end of the 19th century.

Stage show in homage to past cabaret acts with reference to Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue and Aristide Bruant, who were frequent visitors to the Moulin Rouge at the end of the 19th century.

It was during this epoch that the French cancan formed the emblematic dance of the cabaret circuit.

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#4 Moulin Rouge dance troupe.

Moulin Rouge dance troupe.

A can-can dancer from the Moulin Rouge dance troupe from Paris kicks up her heels during the final rehearsal before the performance in the Royal Variety show which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II.

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#5 Secrest Elementary School In Arvada Presents ‘GOLD’ Fever’ As a Centennial sixth grade project students staged town skit complete with chorus line of can-can girls, 1976

Secrest Elementary School In Arvada Presents 'GOLD' Fever' As a Centennial sixth grade project students staged town skit complete with chorus line of can-can girls, 1976

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#6 Due to the Mild winter we are enjoying new Cauliflower from Brittany is reaching thi, 1975

Due to the Mild winter we are enjoying new Cauliflower from Brittany is reaching thi, 1975

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#7 Four Can-Can dancers Biba Brookman, Diana Regal, Robbie Hart and Nicky Billiyard introduced the delicious vegetable is a spirited Can Can, 1975.

Four Can-Can dancers Biba Brookman, Diana Regal, Robbie Hart and Nicky Billiyard introduced the delicious vegetable is a spirited Can Can, 1975.

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#8 Four Can-Can dancers Biba Brookman, Diana Regal, Robbie Hart and Nicky Billiyard introduced the delicious vegetable is a spirited 1975.

Four Can-Can dancers Biba Brookman, Diana Regal, Robbie Hart and Nicky Billiyard introduced the delicious vegetable is a spirited 1975.

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#9 Can-Can line steps out in routine with Enthusiasm, if not exactly precision, 1973

Can-Can line steps out in routine with Enthusiasm, if not exactly precision, 1973

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#10 Cancan Dancers to be featured in Creighton Junior High Performance

Cancan Dancers to be featured in Creighton Junior High Performance

From left, are Donna Krier, Chris Magee, Barbara Walker, Robin Pardue, Nancy North, Martha Stimack; Susan Fisher.

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#11 Junior High Students Practice Dance; Ninth graders at John F. Kennedy Juni, 1971

Junior High Students Practice Dance; Ninth graders at John F. Kennedy Juni, 1971

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#12 The famous ‘French cancan’ on the stage of the ‘Bal Tabarin’ before its final closing, in Paris, 1966

The famous 'French cancan' on the stage of the 'Bal Tabarin' before its final closing, in Paris, 1966

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#13 Four of the French-Cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge picking grapes in the vineyards of the Butte Montmartre in Paris, 1965

Four of the French-Cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge picking grapes in the vineyards of the Butte Montmartre in Paris, 1965

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#14 The French CanCan is a lways popular at the Paris Folies Bergere theater.

The French CanCan is a lways popular at the Paris Folies Bergere theater.

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#15 Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue ‘Frou-frou’ at the Moulin Rouge, in Paris, 1964

Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue 'Frou-frou' at the Moulin Rouge, in Paris, 1964

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#16 Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue ‘Frou-frou’ at the Moulin Rouge, 1964

Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue 'Frou-frou' at the Moulin Rouge, 1964

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#17 Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue ‘Frou-frou’ at the Moulin Rouge, in Paris, 1964

Star dancer Jean-Pierre Charnas during his number with the cancan dancers in the new revue 'Frou-frou' at the Moulin Rouge, in Paris, 1964

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#18 French cancan dancers at the ‘Folies Bergère’, in Paris, in 1962

French cancan dancers at the 'Folies Bergère', in Paris, in 1962

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#19 The Moulin Rouge cabaret presents its new revue Le French cancan in Paris, 1961

The Moulin Rouge cabaret presents its new revue Le French cancan in Paris, 1961

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#20 Juliet Prowse plays Claudine in the 1960 film Can-Can.

Juliet Prowse plays Claudine in the 1960 film Can-Can.

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#21 Cancan Dancing in the Latin Quarter of New York City, 1957.

Cancan Dancing in the Latin Quarter of New York City, 1957.

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#22 Girls give out with a thrilling version of the famed dance The Can-Can.

Girls give out with a thrilling version of the famed dance The Can-Can.

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#23 Dancers of French Cancan taking part to traditional grape harvest on Montmarte hill at Paris, 1956

Dancers of French Cancan taking part to traditional grape harvest on Montmarte hill at Paris, 1956

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#24 French actress Anne Marie Mersen treats a Paris cabaret gathering to her version of a South American dance called the Toada.

French actress Anne Marie Mersen treats a Paris cabaret gathering to her version of a South American dance called the Toada.

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#25 Cancan dancers at a nightclub in the Latin Quarter of New York City, 1956.

Cancan dancers at a nightclub in the Latin Quarter of New York City, 1956.

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#26 Ball Of The Catherinettes at Renault, 1955

Ball Of The Catherinettes at Renault, 1955

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#27 French Cancan at Moulin Rouge, 1955

French Cancan at Moulin Rouge, 1955

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#28 Dancers from Miss May’s troupe perform French Cancan on a barge during the river festival at Bassin de la Villette, 1955

Dancers from Miss May's troupe perform French Cancan on a barge during the river festival at Bassin de la Villette, 1955

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#29 The chorus line at the Folies Bergere performing high kicks while dancing to ‘Gaite Parisienne’, 1955.

The chorus line at the Folies Bergere performing high kicks while dancing to 'Gaite Parisienne', 1955.

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#30 A cabaret dancer performs at London’s Pigalle nightclub in Piccadilly, 1955.

A cabaret dancer performs at London's Pigalle nightclub in Piccadilly, 1955.

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#31 Legs on view during the cancan, 1955.

Legs on view during the cancan, 1955.

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#32 Can-Can girl Regine reveals the underwear beneath her layers of lace, 1955.

Can-Can girl Regine reveals the underwear beneath her layers of lace, 1955.

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#33 Can-Can girl Regine performing with the rest of the troupe at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, 1955.

Can-Can girl Regine performing with the rest of the troupe at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, 1955.

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#34 Can-Can dancer Regine performing on stage at the Moulin Rouge theatre in Paris, 1955.

Can-Can dancer Regine performing on stage at the Moulin Rouge theatre in Paris, 1955.

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#35 Can-Can dancers performing in a Cole Porter show at the Coliseum in London, 1954.

Can-Can dancers performing in a Cole Porter show at the Coliseum in London, 1954.

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#36 Can-Can dancers performing in a Cole Porter show at the Coliseum in London, 1954.

Can-Can dancers performing in a Cole Porter show at the Coliseum in London, 1954.

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#37 Dancer Gillian Lynne, the lead solo dancer of a new American musical Can Can which is opening at the Stoll Theatre, 1954

Dancer Gillian Lynne, the lead solo dancer of a new American musical Can Can which is opening at the Stoll Theatre, 1954

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#38 Dancer Gillian Lynne, the lead solo dancer of a new American musical Can Can which is opening at the Stoll Theatre, 1954

Dancer Gillian Lynne, the lead solo dancer of a new American musical Can Can which is opening at the Stoll Theatre, 1954

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#39 The French cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge give the start of the ‘crusade of prudence 54’ in front of the Grand Palais in Paris, 1954

The French cancan dancers of the Moulin Rouge give the start of the 'crusade of prudence 54' in front of the Grand Palais in Paris, 1954

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#40 Francoise Arnoul as a Dancer in Fench Cancan in 1954.

Francoise Arnoul as a Dancer in Fench Cancan in 1954.

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#41 The winners of the Six days dancing the french cancan.

The winners of the Six days dancing the french cancan.

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#42 Gala of the Lion’s Club in Paris, 1954

Gala of the Lion's Club in Paris, 1954

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#43 Gala of the Lion’s Club in Paris, 1954

Gala of the Lion's Club in Paris, 1954

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#44 Scene of the French cancan in the red mill in a broadcast reconstitution of Toulouse Lautrec’s life by Gilles Margaritis

Scene of the French cancan in the red mill in a broadcast reconstitution of Toulouse Lautrec's life by Gilles Margaritis

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#45 Can-Can dancers cavorting on the bar at the City Varieties Music hall at Leeds, 1953.

Can-Can dancers cavorting on the bar at the City Varieties Music hall at Leeds, 1953.

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#46 A troupe of Parisian can-can dancers performing at the City Varieties music hall in Leeds, 1953

A troupe of Parisian can-can dancers performing at the City Varieties music hall in Leeds, 1953

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#47 The TV Toppers performing the Can-Can at a rehearsal at the Oasis pool in Holborn, London, 1953.

The TV Toppers performing the Can-Can at a rehearsal at the Oasis pool in Holborn, London, 1953.

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#48 Star dancers from the Paris Opera dance the French Cancan at the Moulin Rouge, 1953

Star dancers from the Paris Opera dance the French Cancan at the Moulin Rouge, 1953

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#49 New York policewomen dance the French Can-can at the arrest line for suspects on May 18, 1953

New York policewomen dance the French Can-can at the arrest line for suspects on May 18, 1953

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#50 A chorus of high-kicking Cancan dancers go through their paces in preparation for the reopening, of the Parisian Music Hall Tabarin.

A chorus of high-kicking Cancan dancers go through their paces in preparation for the reopening, of the Parisian Music Hall Tabarin.

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#51 The French cancan dancers of the ‘Bal Tabarin’ in London, 1953

The French cancan dancers of the 'Bal Tabarin' in London, 1953

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#52 French cancan dancers at the ‘Bal Tabarin’ in London, 1953

French cancan dancers at the 'Bal Tabarin' in London, 1953

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#53 A troupe of can-can dancers leave little to the imagination during a performance of ‘The Blue Bird’, a cabaret show at London’s Pigalle restaurant celebrating the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953.

A troupe of can-can dancers leave little to the imagination during a performance of 'The Blue Bird', a cabaret show at London's Pigalle restaurant celebrating the coronation year of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953.

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#54 A troupe of can-can dancers leave little to the imagination during a performance of ‘The Blue Bird’, 1953

A troupe of can-can dancers leave little to the imagination during a performance of 'The Blue Bird', 1953

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#55 French cabaret dancer Gaby Bruyere flashes a beautiful smile from behind a straight-up kick, doing her act at a Paris nightclub. Gaby, a “CanCan” specialist, is soon to make an American tour–and there’s no kick from us.

French cabaret dancer Gaby Bruyere flashes a beautiful smile from behind a straight-up kick, doing her act at a Paris nightclub. Gaby, a "CanCan" specialist, is soon to make an American tour--and there's no kick from us.

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#56 Women dancing the cancan, Montmartre-style, at Piccadilly, London, 1951.

Women dancing the cancan, Montmartre-style, at Piccadilly, London, 1951.

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#57 Three young women (Anne Greatrex, Pamela Beckman and Elizabeth Zinn) dance the French cancan with shorts nicknamed the ‘Lollipop’ (the lollipop), 1950

Three young women (Anne Greatrex, Pamela Beckman and Elizabeth Zinn) dance the French cancan with shorts nicknamed the 'Lollipop' (the lollipop), 1950

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#58 Jimmy Handley watches French cancan dancers rehearsing for the Roehampton Theater and Film Festival, 1950

Jimmy Handley watches French cancan dancers rehearsing for the Roehampton Theater and Film Festival, 1950

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#59 French-style can-can dancers, 1950.

French-style can-can dancers, 1950.

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#60 A can-can scene from the film ‘So Long At The Fair’, which captures the authentic atmosphere of Montmartre during the 1889 Paris Exposition, 1949

A can-can scene from the film 'So Long At The Fair', which captures the authentic atmosphere of Montmartre during the 1889 Paris Exposition, 1949

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#61 Josephine Baker dancing the Can-Can in the “Bal Mabille” act.

Josephine Baker dancing the Can-Can in the "Bal Mabille" act.

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#62 A dancer performs a cancan during the National Advertising Benevolent Fund Ball at the Dorchester Hotel on May 3, 1949

A dancer performs a cancan during the National Advertising Benevolent Fund Ball at the Dorchester Hotel on May 3, 1949

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#63 Cabaret dancers at the Bal Tabarin nightclub in New York City, 1949.

Cabaret dancers at the Bal Tabarin nightclub in New York City, 1949.

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#64 Menes and Desta rehearse their cancan at Alexandra Palace on November 16, 1948

Menes and Desta rehearse their cancan at Alexandra Palace on November 16, 1948

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#65 One of France’s most famous revue dance-teams, the Ballet Avila comes from Paris to Alexandra Palace in London, 1948

One of France's most famous revue dance-teams, the Ballet Avila comes from Paris to Alexandra Palace in London, 1948

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#66 A black-stockinged, petticoated chorine demonstrates that the ever-popular Can-Can is back in Paris and the city is once again as gay as it was before the war.

A black-stockinged, petticoated chorine demonstrates that the ever-popular Can-Can is back in Paris and the city is once again as gay as it was before the war.

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#67 Ladies of the Chorus: Angela Lansbury, who portrays em, a dance hall queen, in MGM’S musical “The Harvey Girls,” puts her all into her work as she leads the chorus in an old-fashioned “can-can.”

Ladies of the Chorus:  Angela Lansbury, who portrays em, a dance hall queen, in MGM'S musical "The Harvey Girls," puts her all into her work as she leads the chorus in an old-fashioned "can-can."

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#68 A trio of French girls dance the can-can for GI’s in the rear echelon of an infantry unit in France, 1944

A trio of French girls dance the can-can for GI's in the rear echelon of an infantry unit in France, 1944

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#69 Girls performing the Can Can during the New Opera Company’s Broadway production of Merry Widow.

Girls performing the Can Can during the New Opera Company's Broadway production of Merry Widow.

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#70 Girls performing the Can Can during the New Opera Company’s Broadway production of Merry Widow.

Girls performing the Can Can during the New Opera Company's Broadway production of Merry Widow.

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#71 Men dressed as women dancing on stage, with their backs to the audience, New York, 1940s.

Men dressed as women dancing on stage, with their backs to the audience, New York, 1940s.

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#72 George Jessel Show at the Knickerbocker Inn, during the New York Fair.

George Jessel Show at the Knickerbocker Inn, during the New York Fair.

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#73 Holding candles in large candlesticks chorus girls from the ‘Folies de Can-Can’ pose on a staircase, 1938

Holding candles in large candlesticks chorus girls from the 'Folies de Can-Can' pose on a staircase, 1938

The show is at the Prince of Wales theatre, London.

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#74 Chorus line from the ‘Folies de Can-Can’ at the Prince of Wales theatre, London, 1938

Chorus line from the 'Folies de Can-Can' at the Prince of Wales theatre, London, 1938

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#75 A chorus line dancing the cancan at the Cotton Club.

A chorus line dancing the cancan at the Cotton Club.

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#76 French cancan dancers at Henry’s restaurant in Paris, 1935

French cancan dancers at Henry's restaurant in Paris, 1935

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#77 French cancan dancers at Henry’s restaurant in Paris, 1935

French cancan dancers at Henry's restaurant in Paris, 1935

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#78 Alexandra Danilova and Leonide Massine, as the cancan dancer dolls in Massine’s ballet of 1919

Alexandra Danilova and Leonide Massine, as the cancan dancer dolls in Massine's ballet of 1919

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#79 Ballerina Alexandra Danilova of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as then can-can dancer appearing in ‘La Boutique Fantasque’ at Covent Garden, London, 1920s

Ballerina Alexandra Danilova of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as then can-can dancer appearing in 'La Boutique Fantasque' at Covent Garden, London, 1920s

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#80 A Russian ballet dancer, as the can-can dancer in Leonid Massine’s ballet ‘La Boutique Fantasque’, at Covent Garden, London, 1934

A Russian ballet dancer, as the can-can dancer in Leonid Massine's ballet 'La Boutique Fantasque', at Covent Garden, London, 1934

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#81 Revue girls The dancer Gerty Reichenall in a can-can costume with black stockings, Berlin, 1932

Revue girls The dancer Gerty Reichenall in a can-can costume with black stockings, Berlin, 1932

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#82 French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

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#83 French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

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#84 French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

French cancan dancers in a cabaret, in Paris, 1933

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#85 Dancers of the Dayelma Ballet dancing Cancan (April program), 1931

Dancers of the Dayelma Ballet dancing Cancan (April program), 1931

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#86 Cancan cabaret at the Piccadilly Hotel, London, 1930

Cancan cabaret at the Piccadilly Hotel, London, 1930

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#87 A group of showgirls dance the cancan in a line.

A group of showgirls dance the cancan in a line.

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#88 Dancers of famous cabaret ‘Moulin Rouge’ at the Eiffel Tower in September 1929 in Paris, France.

Dancers of famous cabaret 'Moulin Rouge' at the Eiffel Tower in September 1929 in Paris, France.

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#89 Dance & dancers Revue girls dancing the cancan at the Wintergarten Variety Theater, Berlin, 1928.

Dance & dancers Revue girls dancing the cancan at the Wintergarten Variety Theater, Berlin, 1928.

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#90 French cancan dancers, 1920

French cancan dancers, 1920

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#91 French cancan dancers, 1920

French cancan dancers, 1920

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#92 A can-can dancer in repose at the Bal Tabarin, a cabaret night club in Paris, 1915.

A can-can dancer in repose at the Bal Tabarin, a cabaret night club in Paris, 1915.

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#93 The Dancing English Teenager’ on stage, four girls at a can-can number, date unknown, probably around 1910

The Dancing English Teenager' on stage, four girls at a can-can number, date unknown, probably around 1910

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#94 Le Bal Du Moulin-Rouge’, 1900.

Le Bal Du Moulin-Rouge', 1900.

Moulin Rouge is best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. From Le Panorama - Paris la Nuit No.

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#95 The Girls of the French cancan taste bunches of grapes for the harvest festival in Montmartre in Paris, 1910s

The Girls of the French cancan taste bunches of grapes for the harvest festival in Montmartre in Paris, 1910s

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#96 A troupe of French Can-can dancers on a barge in the Bassin de la Villette in Paris, France, 1907

A troupe of French Can-can dancers on a barge in the Bassin de la Villette in Paris, France, 1907

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#97 Cancan dancers on stage at Radio Music City Hall in New York City, 1900

Cancan dancers on stage at Radio Music City Hall in New York City, 1900

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#98 Two cancan dancers are the attraction of a dinner offered by the Anglo-American press at the Claridge Hotel, 1906

Two cancan dancers are the attraction of a dinner offered by the Anglo-American press at the Claridge Hotel, 1906

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#99 The ‘Wicked’ Bal Tabarin in Paris, 1907

The 'Wicked' Bal Tabarin in Paris, 1907

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.

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#100 The Wicked Dance the Tourists Flock to See, 1904

The Wicked Dance the Tourists Flock to See, 1904

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.

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#101 A dancer of the “can-can” at the old days at the old Bal Tabarin in Paris, 1900

A dancer of the "can-can" at the old days at the old Bal Tabarin in Paris, 1900

The costume and the dance was considered among the worst evils of the world. Memories of the commotion caused by the appearance of the dancer and the dance still draw tourists to Montmartre who want to shocked.

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#102 A Cancan dancer takes a break by raising her leg on stage in front of the wings of a windmill, 1900

A Cancan dancer takes a break by raising her leg on stage in front of the wings of a windmill, 1900

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#103 Clare Courtney, Valerie Dawling and Angela Bracenell in a quick French Cancan number, the highlight of the show, 1900

Clare Courtney, Valerie Dawling and Angela Bracenell in a quick French Cancan number, the highlight of the show, 1900

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#104 Four cancan dancers raise their legs high in garters and holding each other by the heel under the gaze of spectators and a waiter, 1900

Four cancan dancers raise their legs high in garters and holding each other by the heel under the gaze of spectators and a waiter, 1900

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#105 Can-can dancers during the performance of Emmerich Kalman’s operetta ‘Gräfin Mariza’ (Countess Mariza) in the Neues Schauspielhaus, Berlin, 1900

Can-can dancers during the performance of Emmerich Kalman's operetta 'Gräfin Mariza' (Countess Mariza) in the Neues Schauspielhaus, Berlin, 1900

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#106 French cancan show in the Folies Bergères music hall in Paris, 1900

French cancan show in the Folies Bergères music hall in Paris, 1900

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#107 La Goulue, popular cancan dancer in Paris, France, 1890s

La Goulue, popular cancan dancer in Paris, France, 1890s

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#108 Moulin Rouge French cancan dancers, 1910s

Moulin Rouge French cancan dancers, 1910s

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#109 The cancan dancer Saharet kicks her leg into the air, 1900s

The cancan dancer Saharet kicks her leg into the air, 1900s

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#110 A cancan dancer lifts her skirt to reveal her bloomers, 1900s

A cancan dancer lifts her skirt to reveal her bloomers, 1900s

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Written by Alicia Linn

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