Our recent post concerning the Duchess of Windsor and French Can Can aroused such kind interest that LW thought he’d elaborate a little further on these two fascinating phenomena…
I gave up wearing black stockings when I stopped dancing the can-can” quipped the Duchess of Windsor in her nervy febrile manner, and as ever there were guests at her table, picking at the hand-matched lettuce leaves and patting the Dior-sprayed pugs, quick to take umbrage at the corncrake witticisms of this impossible woman. Certainly it is a startling image: the spidery legs of this most sexless and angular of femmes fatales whirling and gyrating in the stylised orgasm of this notorious exhibition dance.
Dance evolved with Man, a spontaneous or ritualised expression of religious emotion – the frenzied Maenads and Bacchantes; Miriam leading the women of Israel from the Red Sea with timbrels after their deliverance from Pharoah. Dance as an act of adoration or re-enactment of the rhythms and rotations of the natural world: the tides, the seasons, the sun dancing at noon. But then, like perfume itself, it came to share the sacred sphere with the profane and as Western paganism was subsumed by Christendom dancing fell under the greatest suspicion: an occasion for uncontrolled emotion, too close and informal a contact between the sexes, an immodest display of limbs and suggestive posturing.
Naturally dancing makes frequent appearances in folk and fairy tales, its sexual symbolism often spliced in with that of the shoe: Cinderella; the Twelve Princesses who mysteriously wear out their footwear nightly in a subterranean ballroom; and the often bowdlerised denouement of Snow White. The wicked stepmother, bidden to Snow White’s wedding, finds iron slippers already set to heat in a brazier. This is a nice and delicately hideous touch: her young and beautiful hosts patiently awaiting her arrival in order to assist her with the tongs (one thinks of Wills and Kate and that photographer ). She is forced to dance until dead, fried alive by her sexual jealousy. The pointing of a moral continued to find ample material in the dance: Lottie Collins, exuberant music-hall performer of the 1890’s, was another victim of Terpsichore, dying of a seizure brought on by the high-kicks of Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay. Even in the most genteel society dance could be fatal. The Victorian memoirist Augustus Hare mentions his forebear Sarah who “…in the zenith of her youth and loveliness … died very suddenly from eating ices when overheated at a ball”.
It has often been noted that dancing mania manifests in periods of great social disturbance and change: plague, the Reformation, the aftermath of the French Revolution, the two World Wars and right now in the midst of 21st century economic and political devastation. Dance is such a universal and inclusive phenonemon that one expects more perfumes to celebrate it. Carnet du Bal, Samba and Rumba have all taken their last bow, the steps they celebrated now perhaps seeming impossibly dated. Balenciaga’s Rumba was especially luscious: a rich glowing summer pudding of a scent, laced with cinnamon and thick yellow cream which rolled over the skin like scented velvet. Too good to last, it came and went within twenty years. Fans of its partner, the exquisitely sophisticated powdery Quadrille, seek it in vain. Yet French Can Can triumphantly survives in specialist perfumeries, an exuberant froth of lilac, violet, rose and jasmine scented petticoats interlined with patchouli and musk. Originally designed in 1936 as a de luxe souvenir of naughtee Paree with bottles adorned with the tricolour and skirts of paper lace, it was tailored to appeal primarily to the Anglo Saxon market. Leafier, sharper, greener than the rest of the Caron line, a classic floral chypre, it wears well with chic suits and handmade shoes, superbly elegant, discreetly sexy but very decent: no hint of grapefruit oil here to give it a tang of sweat. An elegantly framed Toulouse Lautrec print rather than a cat-fight on the absinthe-soaked floors of the Moulin Rouge, but still a gaily provocative and atmospheric collector’s item.