The Cancan Under Arrest

Art Credit: Shauna Jones

Appearing nightly in vaudeville, burlesque, ballets and operas, on tiny rustic stages of the Wild West mining camps and in the frontier theatres of the Pacific Coast, by the 1870s the cancan was in North America to stay.

When the cancan first became a part of the entertainment fabric, it was celebrated in newspaper reviews and advertisements across the country. By the mid-1870s however, the tone and the tide began to turn on the cancan. By 1874 the dance was the target of the moral reform movement, which was determined to not only eliminate the cancan dance, but to preferably close all vaudeville, variety and burlesque theatres before they ruined America.

It must have been as confusing for the dancers then as it is now when the cancan got labelled as a vulgar indecent dance. From the very beginning, the dance has always been resistance to the Victorian rules for women. As Paris’s biggest cancan star of the 1860s and ‘70s, Rigolboche wrote: “The cancan ignores, distains and eliminates all that recalls rules, regulations and method. It is above all, a dance of liberty.

The moral reformers put a great deal of pressure on civil authorities to stop the cancan and this resulted in a series of raids and arrests across the country. A detailed account of one such raid appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 11, 1875 and tells of a typical raid.

The police rush into the theatre during the cancan and all the dancers run and try to get out the side doors. Police are waiting outside to gather them up. Other dancers hide in the theatre and are rounded up one-by-one. They are all arrested along with the actors, band members, producers and stage hands and taken down to the station. They are followed by most of the people who were at the performance who cheer for the dancers and jeer the authorities.

At the court, the judge charges all the dancers who defend themselves by demonstrating the dance thinking they are doing nothing wrong. The judge fines them and sends them on their way with a stern warning to keep their kicks down.

Outside the courtroom, the crowd has grown to over 2,000 people that cheer, shout and holler as the dancers came out of the station. The whole affair guaranteed that the theatres would be full to capacity every night.

The police raids became a part of the entertainment where the audience would cheer and urge the dancers to kick higher and higher, knowing that it would result in another raid.

Before long the vaudevillians had capitalized on the entertainment value of it all and wrote the raid and arrests into the act.

At the hands of male writers who were quick to judge and condemn the cancan, the perception of the dance was one of low class. A dance of low moral character that plunged women into a life of sin.

The fact is that there is nothing farther from the truth. By becoming professional performers (who danced the cancan as part of their repertoire) many women in the 1800s were pulled out of lives of prostitution, they escaped enslaved marriages, they avoided the drudgery of farm work or the notorious conditions of the workhouses and factories.

Accordingly, dancers were prepared to stand up for themselves, sometimes facing off with newspaper editors, judges, policemen and clergymen. In the 1870s, being financially independent professional women shattered the perception of what women should or should not be and it showed in the press.

Coming up next, two chorus dancers learn the ropes on the vaudeville stages of Coney Island and Chicago of the 1890s. Both of them are about to embark on journeys that will take them to the Paris of the North.

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