October 4, 2015

A short history of "obscene" dances with Jacques Offenbach

I'm shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you!
(photo by Brendan)
Have you been to a high school dance lately? Be warned: prom dancing ain't what it used to be. It's less "Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed doing the Charleston into a swimming pool" and more "simulated sexual positions". For real! My wife once volunteered to chaperone when our daughter was in high school and she came home visibly shaken - and she's no prude, let me hasten to assure you. Girls were bending over at the waist, and their partners were grinding their pelvises into the proferred rear ends. This, if you're curious, is known as "freak dancing".


But in a way, hasn't one of the functions of dancing always been to shock and appall the previous generation? It would seem so.

There's an object lesson on this subject to be observed in Offenbach's satiric romp Orpheus in the Underworld., both in ways he intended when he wrote it and in ways he would never know about after his death in 1880.

In Act II, the gods of Mount Olympus are on a field trip to Hades, where Pluto, Bacchus and all the demons of hell host a party to celebrate the occasion. Just when the party-goers are getting "all the way down", so to speak, Jupiter (you know: the head god; the Big Cheese of the Cosmos; the President of the International God Association) pipes up with a wet-blanket suggestion.

He wants everyone to enjoy a minuet.

It turns out that the God of the Cosmos is a buzz-kill, the guy you DON'T want at your party. But hey - he's the all-powerful ruler, so whattreyagonnado? They dance a minuet, with no great enthusiasm.

Now remember: one of Offenbach's goals is to make fun of the elite opera-going society in the Paris of 1858. His proposals to the Opéra Comique and the Paris Opera to compose new works were met with curt rejections. Smarting from their implied scorn, he chose to have his revenge by inflicting the weapon of satire on serious opera (such as Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice) and the old-fashioned musical styles those dignified houses often staged.

You know, the kind where they frequently have stodgy, boring minuets.

So the guests at the party in Hades move on quickly to the kind of cool, fashionable 1850's dance that was all the rage in Paris.

"I know, I know!" you're thinking, "the Can-Can!  Right-Right?"


If you weren't aware, the Can-Can was unknown in Offenbach's day; it wouldn't appear until the 1890's. What you identify as a Can-Can was really a galop. Now a quick bit of dance history.

There were two popular dances that swept Europe by storm in the 19th century, thanks to the Strauss family and a few other composers. The minuet was supplanted by the waltz. Now these days it's difficult to view the waltz as it was viewed 150 years ago. To us, it's wholesome, innocent and old-fashioned.

To Offenbach's audience, it was just a little racy. Unlike the minuet, in which men and women scarcely even touched one another, the waltz involved the man placing his hand on the woman's WAIST!  Mon dieu! Sacre bleu! Believe it or not, the older generation was shocked by this.

And the galop? Even worse. This was a rapid two-step in which a man and woman literally "galloped" across the dance hall together, then reversed their field and came back the other way. Rinse and repeat. Now bear in mind that most men did not take their wives out for a night of dancing; by and large, wives got to stay home with the children. Most often it was a middle-aged business man out with some young girlfriend half his age. As many of these men ate a rich diet and never exercised, morgues had a steady stream of the corpses of obese adulterous men who tried to galop with their younger, fitter partners and collapsed with heart failure in the process.

And if the waltz was racy, the galop was downright R-rated. And why? Because the level of physical exertion it demanded caused women to... (brace yourself) PERSPIRE! IN PUBLIC! O my GOD!!  We're not talking "glowing", we're talking "sweating like a hog". Again, the older generation was just as turned-off by this display as my wife was by the high school dance crowd.

So this is the trendy dance Offenbach wisely inserts into the party scene in Hades. But there's no way he could have known how his Galop Infernal would be employed by the chorus lines of the Moulin Rouge. They appropriated the galop for their own "shocking" purposes with the Can-Can, in which women were not just being touched on the waist and sweating, but HIKING UP THEIR DRESSES, SHOWING US THEIR UNDERWEAR AND FLASHING THEIR REAR ENDS IN OUR FACES!

What would Offenbach have though of THAT?  To tell you the truth, knowing what I've learned about him, I don't think he shocked all that easily.

Of course, he never chaperoned a dance at Woodside High School in Newport News, Virginia....

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