The can-can (or cancan as in the original French; [kɑ̃kɑ̃]) is a high-energy, physically demanding dance which became a popular music hall dance in the 1840s, continuing in popularity in French cabaret to this day. Originally danced by both sexes, it is now traditionally associated with a chorus line of female dancers. The main features of the dance are the high kicks, splits and cartwheels. The Infernal Galop from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld is the tune most associated with the can-can.
The name can-can may be derived from the French for tittle-tattle or scandal. However, the dance was also referred to as the coin-coin and this may have become corrupted into can-can. In its early days, the dance was also called the chahut (French for noise or uproar).
The cancan is believed to have evolved from the final figure in the quadrille, which is a social dance by four couples. The exact origin of the dance is unknown but the steps may have been inspired by a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, well known for his acrobatics, including the grand écart or jump splits — both popular features of the cancan.
The dance was considered scandalous, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. This may have been partly because in the 19th century, women wore pantalettes, which had an open crotch, meaning that a high kick could be unintentionally revealing. There is no evidence that cancan dancers wore special closed underwear, although it has been claimed that the Moulin Rouge management did not permit dancers to perform in "revealing undergarments". Occasionally, people dancing the cancan were arrested, but there is no record of it being banned, as some accounts claim.
Throughout the 1830s, it was often groups of men, particularly students, who danced the cancan at public dance-halls.
As the dance became more popular, professional performers emerged, although it was still danced by individuals not by a chorus line. A few men became cancan stars in the 1840s to 1861 and an all-male group known as the Quadrille des Clodoches performed in London in 1870. However women performers were much more widely known. The early cancan dancers were probably prostitutes, but by the 1890s, it was possible to earn a living as a full-time dancer and stars such as La Goulue and Jane Avril emerged, who were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere.
The professional dancers of the Second Empire and the fin de siècle developed the cancan moves that were later incorporated by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini in the spectacular "French Cancan", which he devised at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s and presented at his own Bal Tabarin from 1928. This was a combination of the individual style of the Parisian dance-halls and the chorus-line style of British and American music halls (see below).
In United States and elsewhere, the cancan achieved popularity in music halls, where it was danced by groups of women in choreographed routines. This style was imported back into France in the 1920s for the benefit of tourists, and the French Cancan was born — a highly choreographed routine lasting ten minutes or more, with the opportunity for individuals to display their "specialities". The main moves are the high kick or battement, the rond de jambe (quick rotary movement of lower leg with knee raised and skirt held up), the port d'armes (turning on one leg, while grasping the other leg by the ankle and holding it almost vertical), the cartwheel and the grand écart (the flying or jump splits). It has become common practice for dancers to scream and yelp while performing the cancan.
The cancan was introduced in America on December 23rd, 1867 by Giuseppina Morlacchi, dancing as a part of The Devil's Auction at the Theatre Comique in Boston. It was billed as "...Grand Gallop Can-Can, composed and danced by Mlles. Morlacchi, Blasina, Diani, Ricci, Baretta...accompanied with cymbals and triangles by the coryphees and corps de ballet." The new dance received an enthusiastic reception.
By the 1890s the cancan was out of style in New York dance halls, having been replaced by the hoochie coochie.
The cancan became popular in Alaska and Yukon, Canada where theatrical performances feature cancan dancers to the present day.
The cancan is now considered a part of world dance culture. Often the main feature observed today is how physically demanding and tiring the dance is to perform, but it still retains a bawdy, suggestive element.
When the dance first appeared in the early 19th century, it was considered a scandalous dance, similar to how rock and roll was perceived in the 1950s. In the mid-19th century it was thought to be extremely inappropriate by respectable society. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the cancan was viewed as much more erotic because the dancers made use of the extravagant underwear of the period, and the contrasting black stockings. They lifted and manipulated their skirts much more, and incorporated a move sometimes considered the most cheeky and provocative—bending over and throwing their skirts over their backs, presenting their bottoms to the audience. The Moulin Rouge dancer La Goulue was well known for this gesture, and she had a heart embroidered on the seat of her drawers.
A cancan dancer would sometimes stand very close to a man, and bet that she could take off his hat without using her hands. When he took the bet, she would execute a high kick that would take off his hat—and give him a quick look at her pantaloons while she was at it. It was also a warning that anyone taking unwanted liberties with a dancer could expect a kick in the face.
Early editions of the Oxford Companion to Music defined the cancan as "A boisterous and latterly indecorous dance of the quadrille order, exploited in Paris for the benefit of such British and American tourists as will pay well to be well shocked. Its exact nature is unknown to anyone connected with this Companion."
Many composers have written music for the cancan. The most famous music is French composer Jacques Offenbach's Galop Infernal in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). Other examples occur in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow (1905) and Cole Porter's musical play Can-Can (1954) which in turn formed the basis for the 1960 musical film Can-Can starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Some other songs that have become associated with the cancan include Khachaturian's Sabre Dance and the music hall standard Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.
The cancan has often appeared in ballet, most notably Léonide Massine's La Boutique fantasque (1919) and Gaîté Parisienne, as well as The Merry Widow. A particularly fine example can be seen at the climax of Jean Renoir's 1954 film French Cancan. Also the cancan in the Dance of the Hours from the opera La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli.
French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced several paintings and a large number of posters of cancan dancers. Other painters to have treated the cancan as a subject include Georges Seurat, Georges Rouault, and Pablo Picasso.