Magazine article History Today

A Cancan Too Far

Magazine article History Today

A Cancan Too Far

Article excerpt

* Lap-dancing or table dancing, a form of striptease in which a client pays for a one-to-one performance by the girl of his choice, is currently extraordinarily popular in the United States and it threatens to take off in Britain too - if local authorities can be persuaded to grant licences. The American film Showgirls dealt with the phenomenon and seems destined for cult status, having been panned by the critics. lap-dancing seems a far cry from the first striptease shows that were appearing in Paris a hundred years ago, but perhaps it has more similarities as a reflection of Zeitgeist with another form of erotic entertainment then prevalent in the French capital, the cancan.

On the face of it, striptease and the cancan may seem to have little in common and certainly their origins were very different. Striptease is a development of seduction techniques from the private bedroom or the aphrodisiac entertainment of the brothel. Indeed, one of the first public striptease performances, Le Coucher d'Yvette, was by a young woman who coyly removed her clothes as if preparing for bed. The cancan, on the other hand, was always in the public domain, beginning life in about 1830 as a dance for couples in the working-class dancing gardens of Paris. It attracted disapproval from `respectable' society for a number of reasons, not least of which was that it implied a lack of control by those participating. Women, in particular, were not supposed to become helplessly out of breath and the cancan's high-kicking, energetic nature inevitably had this effect. It was this aspect of the dance, rather than any revelation of legs or underwear, which gave the early cancan its notoriety. At this stage, men took as much a part as women and indulged in steps which verged on the acrobatic.

While it remained an amateur, participatory dance for couples throughout the nineteenth century, the cancan also developed in parallel as an entertainment. It was first seen in this guise at the annual carnival balls and later at the popular dance-hulls and dancing gardens which blossomed in central Paris under the second Empire. Members of the public came to the Bal Mabille, the Salon Cadet and other venues to dance themselves, but they also looked forward to the exhibitions by some of the famous dancers of the day. By now, it was the women who had largely made the dance their own. They were generally middle-ranking courtesans, known as cocodettes, who with their male partners performed not only the cancan but also other dances, like the waltz and the polka, in exchange for free entrance and refreshments.

The situation had changed considerably by the 1890s. The dancers at the Moulin Rouge and other dance-halls were not prostitutes but professional entertainers, who earned relatively high wages. The proprietor of the Moulin Rouge and the Jardin de Paris, Joseph Oller, showed a remarkably enlightened attitude in their terms of employment, even allowing his star cancer Jane Avril maternity leave. The cancan had now acquired a new aspect: the flaunting of legs and underwear in an erotic manner. This was a time when women wore more garments than at any time before or since, and underwear was at its most extravagant and ornate.

In the Second Empire, cancan dancers had simply gathered their skirts over one arm to facilitate leg movements; in the naughty nineties, La Goulue, Grille d'Egout and their fellow dancers deliberately lifted their skirts out wide with both hands to display the lacy, embroidered petticoats and knickers which contrasted enticingly with the black silk stockings which were now in fashion. It could be argued that this new feature of the cancan also owed much to seduction techniques. James Laver, the dress historian, pointed to the increasing significance of the petticoat at the turn of the century. Describing one particularly fine example, he wrote: `One can only wonder what could be the possible use of such elaborate undergarments for a respectable woman'. …

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