Movements of freedom: performing popular liberty in the early cancan

Parfitt, C. (2019) Movements of freedom: performing popular liberty in the early cancan. In: Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance. Oxford Handbooks . Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford. ISBN 9780199396986

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Unlike the linear, regimented choreography associated with the cancan in the twentieth century, the early cancan was defined by improvisation. In 1841, Désiré-Guillaume-Edouard Monnais (pseud. Paul Smith), co-director of the Paris Opéra, described the cancan and related dances as, “a dramatic form where each person improvises, following his or her flair, expressing his or her individuality” (Smith, 1841). At this time, dances such as the cancan were forbidden under Article 330 of the French Penal Code (Affronts to Public Decency), and those who performed them risked up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine. The enforcement of this ban demanded the surveillance of hundreds of dance halls in and around Paris by municipal guards charged with identifying when embodied decency had slipped into indecency. And yet, social dancers persisted in their attempts to evade the gaze of authority and continue dancing. This chapter asks what was at stake for both sides in this battle over freedom of movement. It draws on Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘practices of freedom’ (1997) to argue that the cancan functioned as an improvised practice of freedom for working-class and petit bourgeois Parisians whose hopes of Revolutionary freedom had been dashed by the constitutional monarchies of Charles X and Louis-Philippe I. By improvising outside the repertoire of steps condoned by the dancing masters, these dancers subverted the control over their bodies exercised by the authorities in the rest of their lives. The movement material from which their improvisations drew – Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Bohemian and Haitian dances performed on the stages of the popular theatres – reflected their desire to imagine and embody alternative worlds, in which slaves overthrew their masters and the codes of decency imposed by the French bourgeoisie seemed not to apply. In doing so, they sought to re-embody memories of French and Haitian Revolutionary liberty in a present that seemed to have forgotten these principles. Improvisation was a particularly effective tool for this rehabilitation of the past, because, as Celeste Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz argue for Latino/a popular dance, “[i]mprovisation links cultural memory to the here and now, where the meaning of the dance is continually renewed to the (poly)rhythms of history in force in the present” (1997, p.18). This chapter argues that the tremors of liberty reverberated in the bodies of these dancers, creating a weapon of subtle resistance that the authorities could do little to suppress.

Delgado, Celeste Fraser and José Esteban Muñoz (1997) Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latino/a America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Foucault, Michel (1991) ‘The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom’ in Rabinow, Paul (ed.) Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Volume 1. New York: The New Press, pp. 281-301

Smith, Paul (1841) ‘Danses Prohibées’, Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, No. 15, 21 February, pp. 1-2

Publication Type: Book Sections
Additional Information: Part III Habit, Freedom, and Resistance
Uncontrolled Keywords: cancan popular dance improvisation liberty practices of freedom
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DC France, Andorra, and Monaco
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure > GV1580 Dance
Divisions: Academic Areas > Department of Dance
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Clare Parfitt
Date Deposited: 19 Mar 2019 14:16
Last Modified: 07 Oct 2021 08:22

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