The Journey of the Can-Can; From Paris France to the Klondike Gold Rush

Written and researched by Grant Simpson and Shauna Jones

The French Cancan (also known as the French Quadrille) was born on the streets of Paris in the 1830s. From the very beginning, one of the characteristics of the dance was its high-kicks, which evolved from dancers kicking the hats off of the heads of the male by-standers.

Although the cancan in France has an extensive and exciting history in Paris, this article is focused on its journey from 1830s Paris to 1900 Dawson, City, Yukon.

The Cancan (or Quadrille as it was also called) joined forces with American theatre in 1866 in a production called “The Black Crook” and it was to influence musical theatre from the very first show forward. The Black Crook is considered the first American musical by many scholars for three reasons: 1) it included newly written songs with previously adapted music; 2) it included a flashy chorus of leggy dancers; 3) its success spawned a slew of ‘extravaganzas’ that evolve right into today’s modern musical productions.

Author David Price, who wrote the definitive book on the history of the dance: ‘CANCAN!’ traces the cancan as it permeates into the entertainment world, infiltrating theatres, music halls and dancing gardens of Paris, over to the British Music Halls and over the Atlantic to North America where it swept across the United States and Canada.

Price writes in “CANCAN!”:

“The format of burlesque was established in 1866 with The Black Crook, an extravaganza sometimes referred to as ‘the first musical’, in so far as it combined sometimes irrelevant dance routines with traditional melodrama.” (p98)

The poster for The Black Crook announced with great emphasis the presence of a “Ballet Troupe of Seventy Ladies” The scantily-clad female dancing chorus in skin-colored tights was a big draw, respectable enough for the middle-class audience, but controversial enough to attract a great deal of press attention.

Another theatrical hit “The Merry Widow” toured extensively throughout North America in the 1890s. Act 3 is complete with Maxim’s grisettes can-can dancers. According to Price, its inclusion in these types of theatre productions gave the cancan some degree of legitimacy, but it didn’t stop it from also appearing in the seedy side of life as a mainstay in the saloons and dance halls across the Wild West. Stages were set up in these dives for the entertainment of hard-drinking cowboys very much like the ones represented on “Gun Smoke” and other shows about the Wild West. The cancan is a well-documented part of that rowdy world.

The cancan continually toured with the large theatrical productions as well. By including it as a component in ballets, operettas and musicals, the dance was introduced in a proscriptive world by completely avoiding direct mention of its controversial name. Burlesque and variety quickly followed suit and the cancan became an unspoken and ubiquitous inclusion in shows of all sizes.

With its inclusion in legitimate theatre, ballet and operetta and its permanent role in burlesque and variety (along with its famous presence in the saloons and dance halls of the Wild West) it is easy to see that the cancan was commonly known in all levels of society as reflected in a Bromo-Seltzer print advertisement for headache medicine in the 1890s. Pictured on the advertisement the famous British cancan star, Lottie Collins, sings ”Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay!” after being healed by the medicine and this effect makes her to dance and sing. Lottie Collins was a cancan Star from England who famously danced a cancan to the song.  Lottie also appears on the cover of the sheet music doing a kick since she was the start that made the song and international success.

In 1873 when Kate Rockwell (Klondike Kate) was born, the cancan was already over fifty years old. To put it in perspective, it was a dance from her grandmother’s era. But the dance was thriving better than ever, and when she was seventeen, she took a job was as chorus girl in a Coney Island burlesque show where the cancan was already firmly established as a part of burlesque.

Vaudeville historian, author and speaker Donald Travis Stewart (aka Trav. S.D.) describes the Coney Island show.

“The show would usually start with an opening chorus by the ladies in the company (whom, if the audience is lucky, might oblige them with a can-can) There would then follow 12-15 acts of a distinctively 19th-century sort: minstrels, jig dancers, banjo players, harmonizing quartets, acrobats, and so forth.” (adapted from a talk given at the Coney Island Museum in 2006)

Although Kate Rockwell was still eight years away from her Dawson City adventures, her work with the cancan dancers of Coney Island would have prepared her beautifully for what lay in the Klondike – where the gold rush and the cancan were connected from the beginning.

In his book “Entertainment in the Old West” Jeremy Agnew writes “The popularity of the cancan spread rapidly and it appeared at theaters in all the entertainment capitals across the West.” (p91)

As Price also writes about the journey West in “CANCAN!”

“As in Britain, operetta and ballet and later musical comedy were presented at American variety and vaudeville theatres. Travelling companies entertained the citizens of far-flung towns of the West as well as those of the big cities with the latest Offenbach or Gilbert and Sullivan to have arrived in America.” (p100)

The first time we see mention of a cancan in Dawson City is in a light-humorous article from a publication called “The Klondike Gazoot” (Dawson City, August 2nd, 1897) In it, there’s a drawing of a cancan girl kicking the hat of a bystander (where have we heard that before?).

The paper with the drawing is reproduced in ‘A Klondike Centennial Scrap Book’ by Stan Cohen where the full page is reproduced from the paper. The article reads:

“We had the pleasure of receiving a visit from the lady whose picture is given above – Miss Maudeie Van de Graff, nes Mary McGrath, the newly-imported soubrette who will appear tomorrow night and thereafter nightly, t. f., at Casey’s Dance Hall and Can Can Parlors.

     Miss de Graff was accompanied by her gentlemanly press agent, Meyers Levy, who thoughtfully presented us with a cut of this can can favourite of the crowned heads of Europe. Mr. Levy candidly said that the lady was considered a loo-loo wherever she appeared in her great high-stepping act. He prevailed on Miss de Graff to give our editorial corps an exhibition. After closing the doors and shooing out the office cat, Maudie proceeded to rehearse her great act. At the first touchdown our local reporter, McKinnon, who recently experienced religion, sprang out of a rear window and has not returned up to this writing.

     After observing the rehearsal of this talented lady’s turn, we agree with her press agent’s statement regarding her loo-looness, and we are further prepared to bet that she is not afflicted with string halt or other impediment in her limbs.

     We predict that she will draw like a slice of bacon rind, and that few picks or shovels will be in motion when she twirls her extremities in Casey’s Hall.”  (page 72),

Just as it did in mining towns across the West, the cancan began to appear in the names of businesses in Dawson City. In the book “Klondike Women”, author Melanie J. Mayer writes:

“Nellie Cashman, the fifty-year-old Arizona miner who had been “Angel of the Cassiar,” reached Dawson in the late spring or early summer of 1898, having come in over the Chilkoot trail. As she had done in mining camps throughout the West, Nellie opened a restaurant, The Can-Can, in Dawson…” (page 221)

In “Entertainment in the Old West” Jeremy Agnew writes:

“In Dawson, they opened the Savoy saloon and dance hall. The building, lit by oil lamps and heated by pot-bellied stoves, soon became the liveliest spot in town. The band, which consisted primarily of trumpets and violins played lively melodies while the chorus line danced the naughty, high-kicking cancan. More sedate entertainment was provided by a male barbershop quartet.” (Page 91)

By 1899, the Klondike version of the dance was famous enough to draw the attention of the American Mutoscope Company who made a silent movie short entitled “Can-Can in the Klondike” and by 1900, the Palace Grand Theatre welcomed the Savoy Theatrical Company from Victoria B.C. who brought up a large burlesque troop that included none other than Klondike Kate Rockwell. In the book “Klondike Kate” by Ellis Lucia, he tells us about the show in which Kate appeared:

“The band cut loose with some lively marches, right off the showboats and from the variety halls of the East.

The curtain went up on the gaily bedecked and smiling chorus line, in flouncy skirts, spangled shirtwaists, pert hats, and carrying bright parasols. The audience, jammed against the walls in Standing Room Only, cheered and whistled. Eyes sparkling, full of yeasty zest, the girls unleashed a peppy round of songs and dances of the ragtime craze…”

“And finally the naughty, high-kicking French Can-Can excitement reaching a rowdy pitch as the girls squealed shrilly and peeled off fancy garters, tossing them into the audience where sourdoughs of the bald-headed row punched and shoved each other trying to retrieve them.” (Page 87)

After the gold rush, the cancan continued to flourish in burlesque, theatre, ballet and Hollywood, where we can see many examples of elaborate cancans on the silver screen.

After the Second World War, the Moulin Rouge was floundering in Paris, and in the early 1950s the owners began to revitalize the business with an aggressive marketing campaign. Their efforts must have worked because sometime in the mid-1950s when the Yukon tourism industry was looking for icons to attract visitors to the Yukon, the cancan dancer icon was one of the first to appear.

Over the past 20 years, some historians successfully called into question the presence of the cancan in the Yukon during the gold rush. It is hard to accept that the cancan would have successfully infiltrated the entire entertainment world yet somehow managed to avoid Dawson City, Yukon. We have followed the published references from these articles but have found nothing substantiating such claims, and nothing that would call into question the cancan’s authentic place in the history of the Klondike gold rush. In fact, there is a wealth of information indicating the exact opposite.

In “Klondike Kate”, Lucia writes of Kate’s twilight years:

“Many visitors were young people in their teens; the high-school set found her (Kate) most entertaining, especially when she got wound up about her days in the Yukon and in vaudeville, which was usually climaxed by Kate’s doing a buck and wing about the parlour. She chaperoned many high-school dances and parties, and once when some girls were getting together an act for a hospital-benefit show, she taught them the can-can and presented one of them with a pair of garters she had worn on the Dawson stages.”

More than a hundred years after she first appeared in the Yukon, it is little wonder that the cancan dancer remains one of the most endearing icon of the great Klondike Gold Rush where it still performed on a regular basis.