Over 600,000 people will visit the Moulin Rouge in Paris this year, which turns 125 years old this week. The birthplace of the high-kicking burlesque dance known as the French cancan quickly became a favourite haunt of Parisian high society after it opened in 1889. Once the focal point of a great artistic and sexual awakening, it is now a place for tour groups, open seven days a week. The place gives tourists a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in La Belle Epoque – the courtesans, patrons, painters and artists that hung out here – sexy bohemians lingering and mingling beneath the turn of its iconic windmill. But was it actually as sexy and cool as we think?
The quick answer is no. The Moulin Rouge was driven by money as much as sex. Contrary to popular belief, the ‘cancan’ wasn’t even invented at the Moulin Rouge. Cancan had existed since the 1830s and was far more respectable before the Moulin Rouge’s time. Of course it could get rowdy, but was essentially just a high-kicking dance for couples in working class ballrooms, with little to no knicker-flashing. When the Moulin Rouge first opened its doors 1889, it took this little dance from tucked away ballrooms and put it on stage for all the world to see. The reason for this was practical – the dancers of the early Moulin Rouge were courtesans with high-end clients, and so this dance evolved into an ad for their services of seduction. The Moulin Rouge’s version of the dance must have seemed shocking in the 1890s compared to the token show-stopping affair it is today, but at the time it would have appeared tame next to the nightlife at the Nouvelle-Athènes club or La Chat Noir – the real bohemian haunts in the crowded streets nearby.
As the shock of the cancan wore off, the dance grew more racy, and if ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ were the true stars at the Cabaret, it was not exactly the romantic type. The images that survive the era give us insight into what it was really like there. In Le Danse (1890, above) Toulouse-Latrec, portrays a scene that contradicts our image of wild unbridled entertainment that shows us the oppressively bourgeois scene at the Moulin Rouge. Even as the drunk girl lifts her skirts and dances with life and vigour (a figure identical to the one in the famous poster above), everyone else looks just plain bored. Men circle the dance floor not even joining in on the action. The woman in the pink dress appears half asleep, contemplating how soon she she can go home.
It would be unfair to assume the Moulin Rouge is today what it was then – to imagine the top-hatted men and knicker flashing ladies as a busload of foreign tourists who continue to turn up in droves at the cabaret 125 years later. But there is a sense that adventurousness was the real attraction – ‘truth, beauty, freedom and love’ were available, for a price. High society could make their way into Montmartre for the night, mingle with some “real” bohemian outsiders, gasp in shock and gossip all the way back to their mundane lives.