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The Secret of the Can-Can’s Appeal? It’s What’s Underneath


You know the song. You know the dance.

But can-can you grasp the why?

What made the can-can, this now-quaint, some would say cliched, symbol of Gay Paree so scandalous in its youth? Now in its dotage, how does it retain its charm and our interest?

A clue, a very telling clue, has been right in front of us, likely since we first ventured onto the school playground and heard these timeless words:

I see England, I see France
I see someone’s underpants

You know what rhymes with underpants? Paris, France.

And that is, when you get right down to it, the long-lived appeal of the can-can: underpants.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical, the Broadway hit based on the director Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, opens with a line of dancers performing 36, yes, three dozen, consecutive high kicks. Can-can you imagine?

In truth, you’ll probably see far more shoes, stockings and petticoats than unmentionables, and that was probably true of most can-can performances through the years. But just the idea that undergarments could be glimpsed, even for a second, just so Parisian?

So worldly, so daring, so “we scoff at your bourgeoise morals.” Because it’s not the underpants so much as the opportunity to thumb one’s nose at any authority that feels petty and senseless.

MORAL AUTHORITIES: The showing of underpants on stage is strictly forbidden!

CAN-CAN FANS: Hold our Möet et Chandon.

Underpants were more frequently revealed not during the kicks but when the dancers would face away from the audience, left their skirts and waggle their backsides toward the audience. This move was added in the late 1800s as the dancers amped up the sexuality and the can-can as Moulin Rouge reached a dizzy, decadent peak. 

The can-can’s origins are in a pair of ballroom dances: the quadrille (above) and the galop (below). The quadrille involved four couples and enough instruction to make it sound like a chore or punishment. The galop was far simpler but still structured. Both were traditionally the last dance of the evening, and both were played and danced to at a rapid tempo.

The dance started to resemble the can-can when wild and uninhibited high kicks were added. By men. Soon enough the women joined and the men eventually threw in the towel because who’s going to fork over good money for a glimpse of some dude’s sock garter?

All they needed now was a tune that the dancers could kick to, and that would imprint itself so thoroughly upon the can-can as to be inseparable. It would help if the song were so insanely, irritatingly and infuriatingly catchy that it’s playing in your head right now.

CAN-CAN DANCERS: Where can we find such a tune?

JACQUES OFFENBACH: Hold my Mouton-Cadet Bordeaux.

Offenbach, the most French person ever born in Germany, composed his “Galope Infernal” for his first full-length opera, Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) and he knew a hit when he heard one. Soon enough, “Galope” was all over the can-can like white on rice. Come on, you know the words!


Can can
Can can can can can can
Can can can can can can
Can can can can can
Can can can can can can can

Makes you giddy, doesn’t it?  The tune going round and round, the tempo quickening, the legs kicking, the petticoats billowing and the underpants, well, you know they’re there.

By the 1920s, the can-can had parted ways with the Moulin Rouge and was becoming the tightly choreographed chorus line dance it is today. The far more anarchic atmosphere of the Moulin Rouge encouraged dancers to dress and act to flout their individuality. The modern can-can, now almost 100 years old, still is charming but if you’re looking for shock and scandal, look elsewhere. Lord knows you’ve got plenty of options.

It would be impossible to recreate the atmosphere of 1890s Montmartre and Moulin Rouge! The Musical is no history lesson. With its immersive sets and bold lighting, Moulin Rouge! is an electrified, exaggerated, possibly absinthe-fueled hallucination of the period of which the can-can was such a major part. Frankly, we can’t-can’t wait.  

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