What is the Cancan?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2019
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The cancan is a dance in 2/4 time that originated in France around the 1830s. Over the years, it developed from a ballroom dance for couples into a music hall act performed by a chorus line of female dancers. Today, the cancan is associated with the style of 1890s cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge. Cancan dancers usually wear full skirts with petticoats, high-heeled boots, and black stockings. The dance is traditionally performed to the Galop Infernal from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

The cancan is characterized by acrobatic and provocative leg movements, such as the high kick and the ronde de jambe with lifted leg. The name of the dance translates as "scandal" or "tittle-tattle." In its original form, the cancan could be described as a fast galop. It was first danced by couples in working class ballrooms.


Professional cancan performers began appearing in the 1840s. There were a few male performers of the dance, but many more females, and by the end of the century, it had become exclusively associated with female performers. In addition, some cancan dancers of the 1890s became highly paid celebrities, while in the early days of the dance, performers had been semi-professional, part-time music hall acts, many of whom were courtesans. La Goulue and Jane Avril of the Moulin Rouge, immortalized by artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, were among the most celebrated cancan dancers of the 1890s. They helped develop many of the steps that are staples of the dance form today.

After the turn of the 20th century, cancan underwent another change, becoming a highly choreographed number for a chorus line. This style of cancan arose overseas, in Great Britain and the United States, but French dancers were soon performing it for tourists. The Moulin Rouge, which had showcased solo cancan stars in the 1890s, was home to chorus line performances in the 1920s.

The chorus line cancan in fin de siecle costume is the best known version today. It often references the dance's roots through the rowdiness of the performance. Dancers typically accompany their provocative movements with loud trills and shouts, and flamboyant moves such as the cartwheel and the flying splits are sometimes incorporated.


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