Though the Can-can may seem like a lighthearted French dance today, it was something else altogether when it first rose to popularity. The term ‘Can-can’ literally means “solicitous gossip” or “scandal” and back in the day, the dance definitely inspired both. Though it wasn’t performed publically until 1858, it originally evolved out of a couple’s dance performed at working-class French parties.

The Can-can’s early days

In a time when respectable women weren’t even supposed to show their ankles or appear out of breath, how did such a dance manage to come about in the first place? One theory claims it evolved out of an old school danced called the quadrille.

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The quadrille was a vivacious partner dance that was usually the last one performed at parties before people threw in the towel for the night.

Mazurier’s new groove

It was probably also influenced by a guy named Charles Mazurier who was a popular entertainer in the 1820’s. Mazurier was super athletic and became famous for incorporating all sorts of crazy moves into dances. These included everything from jump splits to high kicks to cartwheels.

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Given the strict Victorian social rules of the time, the Can-can likely appealed to women in particular as a sort of metaphorical middle finger to restrictive social norms. As the guy who designed the Moulin Rouge put it, the Can-can was “a whirlwind of pleasures and vices.”

Not your average high kicks

This is particularly true when you consider that back in 19th century France, women’s undergarments were generally open-crotched. Not only was the dance vicarious, but it was also a great deal more revealing than it usually is when performed today.

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That’s why when the Paris Opera staged a show in which the Can-can was featured in 1858, it was a bit of a risky move. But in the end, the show was a smash hit and the Can-can was allowed to live and kick up its feet another day.