The first steps of the “French cancan” date back to the 1830s, before it was called “cancan”. It was a wild (understand athletic) version of an older dance, the Quadrille, and was danced in the Latin Quarter’s balls by the students and their female companions. That form of dance really took off after being featured in Jacque Offenbach’s very popular operetta Orpheé aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), in 1858. The wild steps, this time set to Offenbach’s exhilarating music (a gallop in the score), were a winning combination and gained instantly international popularity. The genius of Zidler, the manager of the Moulin Rouge, was to see a potential money-making (show) business in the acrobatics of unruly flower girls, laundresses, maids, and the likes who were going wild in the dance halls of the time. He hired them and organized them into a true corps of professional dancers. With their revealing high kicks, frenzied spins, dramatic final splits, and lavish displays of frothy underwear, La Goulue (Glutton), Nini Patte-en-l’air (High-hoofing-Nini), Torpille (Torpedo) and their colleagues quickly turned the ailing Moulin Rouge nightclub into the “rendez-vous du (night) high-life”, capturing the fancy of the rich night owls.
This is how the 1898 “Guide des Plaisirs à Paris” describes the cancan: “a host of young girls who are there to demonstrate the heavenly Parisian Chahut dance as its traditional reputation demands…with a physical elasticity as they do the splits, which promises just as much flexibility in their morals.”