Undeniably the most famous cancan dancer of 1890s Paris was Louise Weber, better known by her nickname “La Goulue’ (the glutton). She was born in 1866 in Clichy-la-Garenne just outside Paris and brought up by her mother, who was a laundress. At school, she was taught by Roman Catholic nuns, which was quite normal in those days before the state took over the French education system, and she always retained a certain respect for the Church. But her public behaviour no doubt caused many churchgoers to be shocked. It is said that she offended the priest at her local church by attending her first communion in a ballet skirt and shoes.
In her teenage years, Louise helped her mother in the laundry business and sometimes borrowed the fine clothes and underwear brought in for washing and went out for the evening. Some of her mother’s clients were quite rich and Louise must have seemed so very sophisticated when she took the floor at the dance halls where she spent a lot of her time! She became known for her lively dancing, not only in the cancan but many of the other dances popular in those days amongst the working classes.
The cancan was originally a ballroom dance for couples, and this was still notionally how it was danced, although by the 1880s it had become largely improvised and allowed each performer to react to the music in whatever way that came into their head. It was around this time that the female dancers began to make use of their long skirts and underwear, showing off the layers and layers of frills and lace that were now in fashion. It seems Louise Weber led the way in this, quite possibly because her borrowed underwear was even more extravagant than that of many of the other girls. There are a number of cartoons in magazines from the time showing her at the Elysée-Montmartre and Moulin de la Galette dance halls, provocatively flaunting her lacy petticoats and drawers. One of her trademark gestures was to bend over, throw her skirts over her back and flaunt her backside – there was an embroidered heart on the seat of her drawers which all her fans hoped to catch sight of!
In 1889, the Moulin Rouge opened. This was a different kind of entertainment venue from the others in Montmartre, being a showcase of Parisian nightlife deliberately targeted at the many foreign tourists coming to Paris at this time: 1889 had also been the year of a Great Exhibition, which had attracted visitors from all over Europe and beyond. The proprietor of the Moulin Rouge, Joseph Oller, decided to bring together a range of popular entertainers in one location, with a dance floor for the cancan dancers of Montmartre and various stages where singers, acrobats, magicians and illusionists, and other cabaret performers could appear. There was also an outdoor garden with a small stage.
Oller paid his employees very well, but the tourists were given the impression that the cancan dancers were just working-class girls enjoying their leisure time. La Goulue was paid a huge amount for her performances. She was undoubtedly very popular as an amateur dancer and this reputation influenced Oller in turning her into a salaried superstar of the times. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters helped to promote her and she was photographed hundreds of times, sometimes in familiar guise as a cancan dancer, by herself or with fellow dancers, at other times semi- or completely nude. One of her partners was the enigmatic Valentin-le-Désossé, whose profile can be seen in Lautrec’s poster for her debut at the Moulin Rouge in 1891.
Sadly, La Goulue’s career at the top of her profession was very short-lived. In 1895 she left the Moulin Rouge, partly because she had become pregnant but also because she had hopes of capitalising on her reputation and opening her own theatre where her talents could be showcased. She was supported in this venture by Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the panels of her fairground-based Théâtre de la Goulue, but unfortunately the crowds stayed away. It was mistake to substitute a starring role at one of Parisian nightlife’s premier entertainment centres with what was essentially a fairground novelty act. She lost all her considerable savings in this venture and by 1929, when she died, she had been reduced to living in poverty in a squalid caravan on the outskirts of the city. One of her last jobs was selling matches on the streets around the Moulin Rouge. Most people had now forgotten her completely.
Today, she is probably much better known than she was in the 1920s and in the 1990s her body was reburied in the cemetery in Montmartre.
You can read more about La Goulue in my book Cancan! www.cancanbook.com