Parisian theatrical spectacle, in which four women throw long skirts in the air, and high kick to music from the operetta "Orpheus in Hell", based on the legend of Orpheus and Euradike. In this work from 1858, Orpheus, the greatest musician of all time, is given a chance to resurrect his dead wife if he can find her among the dead. While he searches, the demons try to confuse him by flirting with him, dancing in intricate figures, and generally behaving in a boisterous, unseemly manner. The music for this scene was used as pop dance music among local young folks, who took it upon themselves to let their own inner demons out by dancing in the form known as a quadrille. This quadrille varied from the usual in that instead of each couple soloing during verses, each woman took a turn in the center of the square without a man. The resulting improvised performances (which could include but were not necessarily limited to spinning, high kicking, blowing kisses, skirt throwing, doing splits, copping feels, knocking off onlooker's hats "accidentally" with feet or hands, mooning the audience, and flashing beaver) were of such a nature that the dance (and its music) was banned by the guardians of public morals. The dance came to be known by the code word "cancan", meaning, "duckie", or "to make senseless quacking sounds" or "rumors and/or gossip" -- since you could only find out where it was played by word of mouth, and shuffled off to the slums on the edges of town where the cops were too busy enforcing other laws to bother with a bunch of peacefully (though frantically) dancing kids.

There the matter would have rested, were it not for an overlooked outside factor: The British. Beginning in the late part of the 17th century, aristocratic Brits had been sending their sons to study abroad after their studies at the university were done. This was ostensibly to introduce them to foreign friends and relatives of the family, and to acquaint them to life under various forms of government. By the mid-19th century, however, the goal of this trip, known as "The Grand Tour", was more cultural, and centered on viewing historical sites and art museums in a set route that went from Calais (across the Channel) to Italy and Greece, and which could also include (depending on the family's finances and tastes) Egypt and the Holy Land and/or a wide circle back overland to see the glories of Vienna, Germany, and the Netherlands, before returning home. But for an overnight stay in Calais, however, the first city in the tour was Paris.

Being a "tourist" in those days was pretty harsh: since these guys were supposed to be (at least in theory) studying, their days were spent in the company of a guide, or a close friend of the family, going from sight to site checking off required experiences on a real or metaphorical list, or discussing cultural matters at formal social gatherings. However, since evenings were free time, the prospective Innocents Abroad soon developed an itinerary of a more personal kind -- the "Real Paris".

Alcohol was cheap. Prostitution was legal. Food was cheap, plentiful, good, and served at almost any time of day at "restaurants" (the very word was new) where you could eat a lot better than you could get at home, or even at your hotel. Getting drunk, stuffed, and laid was only the beginning: if you had the right connections, you could visit an artists' studio (with its potted palms, ravishing models, and exotic props), hang out with various marginal types from ballet dancers to Africans from the colonies, and, of course, if you were really, really lucky, you could see them dance the cancan.

Seeing a cancan was a complex and difficult task: first, you had to know who to ask where and when the cancan was played, then there was a long and involved ride in a cab (with horses, mind you, who went at about five miles an hour on the flat -- and Paris is not flat) out to the suburbs, then, finally, you were dropped off in a sleazy part of town where no one spoke English at all, or for that matter anything like the French you'd been taught, and there was no guarantee whether the patrons wouldn't, that particular evening, decide it was Polka Night instead. For the owners of the small taverns and halls where this went on, the attention was somewhat less than welcome: after all, their livelihood (and that of many of their patrons) depended on keeping a low profile, and having cabloads of rich foreign types pulling up every night was hardly low-key. However, the English spent and spent and spent some more, buying drinks for everyone in sight even as they broke up relationships by assuming that beaver-flashing plus a few of their francs equalled post-cancan availability. Something, in short had to be Done.

What happened was the invention of someplace for them to go. Some unnamed genius in the 1870's bought a new establishment, paid off the cops to leave him alone, and then paid the four most enthusiastic couples to "spontaneously" ask the band to play "Orpheus in Hell", every night and dance to the results. The rest of the evening would be simple dance music, augmented by such things as folk and satirical songs, puppetry, and various other countrified entertainments, arranged to seem as if people were just happening by to amuse their neighbors. The considerable expense was taken up by jacking up drink and food prices to such an extent that only the English could afford them. (They also served wretchedly corner-cutting food -- but that's another story.) "Cabarets" like this may have toned down the dancing (and soon did away with the cancan dancers' partners in favor of an all-girl chorus line) but did their best to celebrate a fiction of sinfulness that was less nasty than naughty -- but places like "The Black Cat", "The Red Mill" (whose facade featured a wind-driven automaton of the miller and wife kissing each other), and Aristide Bruant (a wicked-looking man in a black coat and broad hat with a blood-red scarf) provided an experience of Parisian Life in the Raw, located in "safe" neighborhoods that had been slums in the 1860's but had become solidly middle class by 1890. Nowadays it would be called gentrification.

Nowadays, posters from those glory days are considered proper ornaments for the most respectable young women's apartments, even as they show an approximately equal amount of leg on a warm Spring day. The halls are still there, gouging tourists for a cover charge, a mandatory bottle of watery champagne for the table, impressive-looking (but uninspiring) food, hideously expensive drinks, and anything else they can tack on, all for the privilege of seeing women showing a lot more than leg in glittery reviews. The cancan is there, but like a relish tray in a lavish Thanksgiving dinner, it's hardly touched or looked at. But it just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it. Funny how that works out.

Cancan, a dance, something of the nature of a quadrille, but accompanied by violent leaps and indecorous contortions of the body.


Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

Can"can (?), n. [F.]

A rollicking French dance, accompanied by indecorous or extravagant postures and gestures.

 

© Webster 1913.

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