AskDefine | Define cancan

Dictionary Definition

cancan n : a high-kicking dance of French origin performed by a female chorus line

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings


  1. A high-kicking chorus line dance originating in France.
  2. A trick where one leg is brought over the seat, so that both legs are on one side.



  1. cancan

Extensive Definition

The can-can (also spelled cancan or Can Can) is regarded today primarily as a physically demanding music hall dance, performed by a chorus line of female dancers who wear costumes with long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings, harking back to the fashions of the 1890s. The main features of the dance are the lifting up and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements.
The Galop from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld is the tune most associated with the can-can (a somewhat simplified form and a more evolved one Can-Can (Orpheus in the Underworld). Performed on the accordion).


The cancan first appeared in the working-class ballrooms of Montparnasse in Paris in around 1830. It was a more lively version of the galop, a dance in quick 2/4 time, which often featured as the final figure in the quadrille. The cancan was, therefore, originally a dance for couples, who indulged in high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs. It is thought that they were influenced by the antics of a popular entertainer of the 1820s, Charles Mazurier, who was well known for his acrobatic performances, which included the grand écart or jump splits—later a popular feature of the cancan. At this time, and throughout most of the 19th century in France, the dance was also known as the chahut. Both words are French, cancan meaning "tittle-tattle" or "scandal", hence a scandalous dance, while chahut meant "noise" or "uproar". The dance did cause something of a scandal, and for a while, it was repressed as indecent.
As performers of the cancan became more skilled and adventurous, it gradually developed a parallel existence as entertainment, performed by a chorus line, alongside the participatory form. A few men were cancan stars in the 1840s to 1860s, but women performers were much more widely known. They were mostly middle-ranking courtesans, and only semiprofessional entertainers—unlike the dancers of the 1890s, such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, who were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere. These individuals developed the various cancan moves that were later incorporated by the choreographer Pierre Sandrini in the spectacular "French Cancan", which he devised at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s and presented at his own Bal Tabarin starting in 1928. In 1924 the first London performance of the musical "Can Can" opened.


The cancan is danced in 2/4 time, and is now usually performed on stage in chorus-line style. In France in the 19th century the cancan remained a dance for individual entertainers, who performed on a dance floor. In the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, the cancan achieved popularity in music halls, where it was danced by groups of women in choreographed routines. This style was imported into France in the 1920s for the benefit of tourists, and the French Cancan was born—a highly choreographed routine lasting ten minutes or more, with the opportunity for individuals to display their "specialities". The main moves are the high kick or battement, the rond de jambe (quick rotary movement of lower leg with knee raised and skirt held up), the port d'armes (turning on one leg, while grasping the other leg by the ankle and holding it almost vertical), the cartwheel and the grand écart (the flying or jump splits). Additionally, performance practice of the can-can almost always includes the dancers screaming, yelling, cat-calling and trilling while dancing.


Although the dance is now considered a part of world culture, and the main feature observed today is how physically demanding and tiring the dance is to perform; by the late 1860s, it was considered extremely inappropriate, and in the early 20th century downright erotic. When the dance initiated in the late 19th century, it was considered little more than a scandalous thing for youngsters, similar to how rock and roll would be perceived later on.

In art

Many composers have written music for the cancan. The most famous music is French composer Jacques Offenbach's galop infernal in Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). Other examples occur in Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow (1905) and Cole Porter's musical play Can-Can (1954) which in turn formed the basis for the 1960 musical film Can-Can starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Some other songs that have become associated with the cancan include Khachaturian's Sabre Dance and the music hall standard Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.
The cancan has often appeared in ballet, most notably Léonide Massine's La Boutique Fantasque (1919) and Gaîté Parisienne, as well as The Merry Widow. A particularly fine example can be seen at the climax of Jean Renoir's 1954 film French Cancan.
French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced several paintings and a large number of posters of cancan dancers. Other painters to have treated the cancan as a subject include Georges Seurat, Georges Rouault, and Pablo Picasso.


Price, David. Cancan! London: Cygnus Arts; New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998. ISBN 1-900541-50-5, ISBN 0-8386-3820-1.
cancan in German: Cancan
cancan in Spanish: Can-can
cancan in French: Cancan
cancan in Friulian: Cancan
cancan in Italian: Can-can
cancan in Lithuanian: Kankanas
cancan in Dutch: Can-can
cancan in Japanese: フレンチカンカン
cancan in Polish: Kankan (taniec)
cancan in Portuguese: Cancan
cancan in Russian: Канкан
cancan in Simple English: Can-can
cancan in Finnish: Can-can
cancan in Swedish: Cancan
cancan in Chinese: 康康舞
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