I give many talks on the history of the cancan and the reaction of audiences is often: “I never knew there was so much to it!” The cancan is one of those things that most people think just exists and they never really question its history too much. Of course, I’ve made a special effort to find out all about it – and written my book about the dance Cancan! (see www.cancanbook.com), so I am rather particular about these things, and I appreciate that nobody else is likely to be as obsessive. But I do think the evolution of the dance is fascinating and to some extent it’s a shame that our impressions of it have often been confused over the years by the numerous feature films that include it. It’s easy to accept a depiction of the cancan in a film without actually thinking about whether it’s accurate historically. But in fact, I’ve yet to come across a film that really shows the cancan as it was at any time in its history and when public speaking, I sometimes use a few film clips more to show how the cancan didn’t look!
Although often anachronistic, the cancan is phenomenal as it must be the most filmed dance ever (feel free to correct me if you can think of another one!). It’s very often used as a device to fix the action in 19th-century Paris, in the Victorian music hall, in the Wild West, and it also crops up in films based on operettas and musicals that feature the dance – The Merry Widow (1934) and Can-Can are obvious examples. It also, perhaps surprisingly, appears in a number of classic horror films – try House of Wax (1953), The Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), The Lodger (1944) or Jack the Ripper (1959). I did a quick check of the Christmas Radio Times and came up with a few more examples on (British) TV over the coming two weeks. Sometimes they’re only a “blink and you’ll miss it” but you get the effect. In some cases, I know much more footage was filmed but it ended up on the cutting room floor. Here they are anyway:
Oklahoma! (1955) – the rather sinister dance-hall girls that feature in the heroine Laurey’s dream. (23 December, Channel 5, 3.10 pm)
An American in Paris (1951) – a stylised, balletic version performed by Leslie Caron. (Christmas Eve, BBC2, 10.15 am)
The Red Shoes (1948) – a quick snatch of the ballet La Boutique Fantasque depicting life-size cancan-dancing dolls. (Christmas Day, BBC2, 8.50 am)
Gone with the Wind (1939) – during Rhett and Scarlett’s honeymoon on a Mississippi river boat. (Christmas Day, Channel 5, 10.15 am)
Carry on Cowboy (1966) – the movie that began my fascination (at the age of 10) with the cancan: once seen never forgotten. Sid James says the performance by the Stodge City saloon girls is “educational”, and so it is. (Boxing Day, ITV3, 1.25 pm)
Those are the ones I spotted – and there may be more. Unfortunately, I don’t think some of the best films containing a cancan are being shown this Christmas. Without doubt, THE best is Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954) – supposedly the story of the creation of the Moulin Rouge and climaxing with the opening night’s cancan performance. Historically, it’s nonsense and the cancan never looked like that at the Moulin Rouge in the late 19th century, but nevertheless it’s a wonderfully costumed, brilliantly choreographed and superbly staged show.
Another film that attempts to capture the atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Parisian nightlife is John Huston’s Moulin Rouge from 1952. Again, not historically accurate, it does depict the famous dancer La Goulue in a quadrille performance – but despite showing off frothy underwear, it’s not an exciting cancan but a rather restrained affair and doesn’t convey anything of what made the dance such a popular draw for the tourists. Later in the film comes a more lively, but (anachronistically) choreographed cancan (the actual cancan was much more improvised and individualistic) featuring six dancers performing a chorus-line routine. The dancing may not be right but the costumes are pretty accurate: Victorian blouses, long skirts with frilly petticoats and bloomers, and black stockings.
One show that often gets repeated at this time of year is the Two Ronnies Old-Fashioned Christmas Mystery from 1973. It’s set in a Victorian country house and about halfway through, the maids all get together and perform a “spontaneous” cancan. Somehow I missed this when it was first shown so we can be grateful that today’s multimedia environment is able to provide us with a taste of Victorian naughtiness – well, OK, not quite Victorian, as the underwear isn’t authentic. But who cares?
So the cancan has the record as the most filmed dance, but it also holds another record – or rather the music to which it is performed does. Surely Offenbach’s famous cancan theme from the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, first performed in 1858, is the most well-known piece of music in the world? Does anybody want to challenge this statement? Of course, you can dance the cancan to a lot of quick pieces of music in 2/4 time, but Offenbach’s galop is just so perfect for the dance. He also wrote a number of other tunes for the cancan, but this one has stood the test of time, and most people would recognise it if you played it to them and say: “That’s the cancan!” Incidentally, he called it the galop infernal – a nickname for the dance at that time, the galop being the 1820s dance that the cancan was actually based on. The word infernal means “hellish”, and many people in respectable society certainly thought the cancan came from hell, but of course in Offenbach’s operetta the phrase was particularly appropriate – because it is actually performed in the infernal regions, the Underworld or Hades.