The Legacy of the Klondike Cancan

The cancan that began as an 1830s dance craze in Paris was a direct revolt against the rules imposed by men, society, press, clergy and narrow-minded citizens. From the beginning the cancan was a statement, and it became a symbolic statement through the various revolutions and movements from that point forward.

As the great cancan artist Rigolboche put it:

“The cancan ignores, disdains and eliminates all that recalls rules, regulations and method… it is above all a dance of liberty.”

For those offended by the cancan, it has been a constant source of indignation and frustration; no matter how hard they tried to keep it down, it continued on a steady course as a beacon of independence.

The first stars of the cancan were courtesans, and it was their careers as dancers that lifted them out of that world and empowered them to become independent. Many of these first generation cancan dancers became famous authors, playwrights, actresses and effective political activists – not to mention mothers and grandmothers.

As the cancan grew in popularity around the world – creating more and more dancers – it lifted more women out of lives in workhouses, factories, farms, enslaved marriages and impoverished existences.

Vaudeville incorporated the cancan into its fabric to such a degree that a cancan was referred to as vaudeville dancing and troupes travelled around the world – giving the performers beautifully close theatre families, incomes, adventure and education.

As a vocation, the cancan allows dancers to evolve into their own unique self, while being a part of an incredibly powerful group of individuals. Throughout history, cancan dancers have been generously contributing to every community in which they live and perform.

Throughout history the cancan has been lambasted in the press, from the pulpit, from moral reformers and pious society. The cancan has been arrested, fined, banned, excluded and ignored. It has been judged by those who have no stake in it at all – except to judge it from an uninformed and ignorant standpoint. Yet throughout history, the cancan has not only survived, it has continued to thrive.

It’s revealing to compare the incident in the 1870s – in which a Chicago editor named Wilbur Storey lashed out at a cancan troupe, creating a mob of cancan supporters ready to lynch him – with the incident that happened here in the 1990s with the Yukon News. In 1992 Peter Lesniak wrote an editorial equating cancan dancers with prostitutes. This resulted in a large group of people gathering outside of the Yukon News demanding that he come out and be held accountable It’s the same mentality over a century later. Lesniak of course was completely ignorant to everything cancan and took a male sexualized approach – the same as Wilbur Storey in 1870. The only difference was that Storey was horsewhipped in public by the cancan dancers.

It’s also amazing that the “high arts” have continued to try and ignore the cancan as a legitimate art form for over 180 years. The cancan has been ignored, denied legitimacy and taken years of verbal – and at times physical – assaults.

I have been working alongside cancan dancers for over 35 years. My interest in the history of the cancan stems from the fact that I kept hearing outside criticism of the dance and dancers that didn’t align with the what I saw as a co-worker.

I knew that something was askew in the way the dance was perceived and represented in the press, in books and in history to a large degree.

For years people have tried to convince me that the cancan was never performed in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. In fact, this claim has been published in newspapers and books over the years. If this theory were true, it would make the Yukon the only jurisdiction in North America (not to mention most of Europe and Great Britain) that somehow managed to exclude the cancan from society during that time.

Even today, cancan bashing is a favourite sport of some. I hear stories of cancan dancers being berated or taken to task because of some indignant paradigm contrived by an ill-informed stance. This has been true since the beginning.

In spite of all these attacks, the cancan and its dancers have endured for well over a century – and it still thrives. Why? Because the cancan is a statement.

My hope is that this series has created greater awareness of the true nature of the cancan and its history. I hope that our Yukon cancan dancers carry forward the statement that dancers have been making for over 180 years. The cancan is above all, a dance of liberty.

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