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The lusty dance of Paris – the Can-Can


The Can-Can dance was raucous and risqué, reaching its height of popularity in 1900 during the Belle Époque. Parisian cabarets promoted the dance and Jane Avril and La Goulue popularized it in the night clubs of Montmartre. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted it in his famous painting, At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance. And, Jacques Offenbach left us with that joyful, if not nagging tune: da, da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da . . .. You know the rest.

What made the dance so tempting? Why did aristocrats and the growing middle class make their way to the Montmartre in what must have been a steady stream of horse-drawn carriages from the center of Paris. They came to the famous cabaret district with the express purpose of witnessing the flamboyant and naughty dancers.

Author Pamela B Eglinski studied the life and times of the can-can dancers in Paris and has written a fabulous book about it, a time travel romp through Belle Epoque Paris…

The Moulin Rouge: Life among the can-can dancers

Well, wouldn’t you have been curious too? Jane Avril and La Goulue were the star performers at the Moulin Rouge – each embracing a unique take on the wild dance. Avril pranced around the stage in a black silk skirt, long sleeved black blouse, and multi-layers of white petticoats – swishing them to-and-fro to the rhythms of the can-can. She developed a stylized egg-beater move by rotating her leg ‘round and ‘round from the knee.  Add to that hopping around the dance floor – one hand clutching the sole of her extended foot—titillating the audience by exposing her black stockings and red garters.

La Goulue, on the other hand, was even more daring. She wore a few petticoats, and a pair of pantaloons – often with something brazen stitched on the derriere – seen at the end of the dance when she’d flip her skirts back over her head, peer between her legs at the audience, and yell something quite obscene!

Can-Can Dancers who were for sale

Ah, just when you thought you’d heard the most titillating of all – there is more. The chorus line, initially recruited from resident prostitutes, often had a large opening in the crotch of their pantaloons. Now, imagine a man standing on the perimeter of the dance floor, having had too many glasses of absinthe, feeling more than a bit tipsy, and ogling the exposed “ahem” when the dancers kicked their feet high in the air! The “merchandize” was for sale.

When writing The Can-Can Girl and the Mysterious Woman in Pink, I knew that I had to draw my readers into the amoral world of the Moulin Rouge. I needed to “paint with words” the ambiance of the dance hall – depicting not only the dancers, but the rowdy men, curious-but-tipsy women, the smell of unwashed bodies, and the musky odor of oil lamps and cigar smoke.

The Can-Can Girl

Here is the scene, in my time travel novella, The Can-Can girl and the mysterious woman in pink, where the protagonist, Adrienne, first arrives at the Moulin Rouge.

“…People danced all around her, in clusters. Some fell—obviously tipsy. Companions pulled them upright and began dancing again, kicking up heels and stumbling, determined to conquer the new dance. Valentin the Boneless bowed to the can-can dancer in the orange dress and bright red stockings. The end of her lesson? The young woman moved aside as he motioned to a teenager in a bright green skirt framed by an abundance of white petticoats. The child stood directly in front of Adrienne. A thin chinless woman in black directed the youngster with a gentle shove.

Adrienne recognized the scene—it was the sketch Lautrec had sent to Grandmother—the one without the lady in pink. The one identified by the museum’s x-ray.

Don’t make a scene, Adrienne cautioned herself. Don’t faint.

The red-stockinged can-can dancer grabbed Adrienne’s arm. “Attention,” she said. “You mustn’t upset Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec. He’s busy sketching.” Adrienne turned around. The artist sat at a small table just behind her.

“Oh, my,” she said pressing her had to her throat. “E-Excuze-moi.”

Lautrec glanced up, mumbled something about her poor French, and returned to his drawings.

The can-can dancer laughed, took Adrienne’s hand and escorted her to a table where the noisy dance hall was a little more muted…

By Pamela B Eglinski author of The Can-Can Girl and the Mysterious Woman in Pink, available on Amazon as an e-book and paperback.

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