Inside the Cabaret

During the Belle Époque, that period roughly between 1890-1914, France experienced a rush of cultural exuberance marked by peace, optimism, and technological progress spurred on by the industrial revolution. Everyone, from the worker on up, had more time to spare.

As a result, leisure began to democratize.  Entertainments, once strictly divided by class, began to take a form that encouraged social and cultural mixing.

The first cabaret was opened in 1881 in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. Called Rudolph Salis’s Cabaret Artistique, and later renamed Le Chat Noir, it became a place for poets, artists, and composers to share ideas and test out new material.

As time went on, other cabarets sprang up throughout the city and began hosting scheduled cafe-concerts, performances of song, dance and sketch comedy. The venues brought a new intimacy and informal spirit to entertainment: audiences sat at small tables and enjoyed food and drink while performers worked right in their midst, mingling and sometimes interacting with the crowd. People felt comfortable in the cabaret: they could keep their hats on, eat, drink, talk, and smoke during  performances, and leave the usual rules of society behind.

The Moulin Rouge, famed for the large imitation windmill on its roof, is perhaps the best-known of Paris’s cabarets. Founded in 1889 in the red-light district of Pigalle, it was a place for people from all walks of life to mix: slumming aristocrats, workers, artists, businessmen, elegant women, and foreigners passing through town.

It’s the Moulin Rouge that’s also largely to thank for the popularization of the cancan, elevated to an artform by the venue’s mistresses of leg-kicking, whose number included the notorious Louise Weber aka La Goulue (“the glutton” or greedy), known for the heart she had embroidered on the seat of her drawers.  Her partner was Valentine Dessose (“Valentine the boneless”), and she danced along with Nini-pattes-en-l’air (“legs in the air”), Jane Avril, la Môme Fromage (“the cheese kid”), Cha-U-Kao (or “chahut-kaos” meaning “dance of chaos”), and Grille d’Egout (“sewer grating” after her gapped teeth).

La Goulue

La Mome Fromage

Nini Pattes-en-l’air

Nini Pattes-en-l’air, la Sauterelle, Grille d’Egout and in front of them, la Goulue, in the Moulin-Rouge, Paris

Usually accompanied by the Galop from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, the dance is traditionally performed by a line of female dancers in long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings.  The dancers kick their legs so high in the air that they have to turn their heads to avoid hitting themselves in the face.  The dance, though never banned by moralists, was nonetheless not considered especially decorous: In French, the word cancan means “scandal.”

Join NWLA on February 18th as we celebrate Paris’s cabaret culture with our latest Language of Food event, Fête d’Amour.  Enjoy a four-course meal of French bistro cuisine, paired with specially selected French wines; listen to the music of French chanteuse Nikki Dee and others; view art by local artists Sam Hendrix and Patrick Brennan; and thrill to the debut of Les Folies de Oui-DB, a troop of home-grown dancers and performers in the true spirit of the French cabaret!

Call 360-321-2101 or email [email protected] for more information or to reserve your place today!