The Jardin Mabille and the origins of the can-can

Paris has long been famous for dance, and not just the glamour of the ballet. The city was renowned for its bals (places and events for dancing). At one end of the social scale were the elaborate invitation-only affairs in the hôtels particuliers (private mansions) of the wealthy. Further down the scale one could find an immense variety of dancing opportunities for those with less money but more energy and enthusiasm. Among the latter was the Jardin Mabille.

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I found this image of one of the most celebrated of all bals in a collection of stereocards. The Jardin Mabille disappeared more than a century ago, but its influence persists.

The original Jardin Mabille was founded by one of Paris’s innumerable dance teachers, who in 1831 opened an outdoor dancing space reserved for his students. Monsieur Mabille (sometimes called Père Mabille, or Father Mabille), leased or owned land on the rue Montaigne (once known as the Allée des Veuves), just off the Champs-Elysées.

In the early 1800s, the Champs-Elysées was not yet the grand avenue laid out by Baron Haussmann. It was a fashionably countrified promenade, a straight, tree-lined drive outside the dense central urban area, leading towards Paris’s suburbs and countryside.

Père Mabille started a small venture, but his sons envisaged something grander. In 1844, they transformed the modest private dancing area into a major public attraction. Over the next few decades, the Jardin Mabille rose to prominence, then declined, and eventually disappeared.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) visited the Jardin Mabille in the early 1850s, after Père Mabille’s sons had introduced 3,000 gas lights, as well as landscaping with trees, flowerbeds, walkways, scenic paintings and mirrors. Entranced, she wrote of the

flower-beds laid out in every conceivable form, with diminutive jets of gas so distributed as to imitate flowers of the softest tints and most perfect shape… In the centre there is a circle of pillars, on the top of each of which is a pot of flowers with gas jets, and between them an arch of gas jets. In the midst of this is another circle, forming a pavilion for musicians, also brilliantly illuminated, and containing a large cotillion band of the most finished performers. Around this you will find thousands of gentlemen and ladies strolling, singly, in pairs or in groups. While the musicians repose they loiter, sauntering round, or recline on seats.

When the musicians broke into “a lively waltz” she was transported:

In an instant twenty or thirty couples are whirling along, floating like thistles in the wind… Their feet scarce touch the smooth-trodden earth. Round and round, in a vortex of life, beauty and brilliancy they go, a whirlwind of delight, eyes sparkling, cheeks flushing, and gauzy draperies floating by… It is a scene perfectly unearthly, or rather perfectly Parisian, and just as earthly as possible.

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She was not alone in her enthusiasm. More than a decade later, another observer wrote about the Jardin Mabille in its heyday. G. A. (George Augustus) Sala was among the many journalists who covered the Paris Exhibition of 1867, one of more than nine million people who attended the Exhibition. In a book published in 1868 he evoked “a merry age, a dancing age, a jovial, lighthearted devil-may-care age. Vive la Joie! Vive la bagatelle! Long live the Café Riche and the Jardin Mabille and the Closerie des Lilas and the Thirteenth Arrondissement!”

Curiously, in his 1868 account of the Exposition year, there is no description of dancing at the Jardin Mabille. But he notes that after a song, “Everybody applauds, everybody drinks, everybody is happy.” Going to the Jardin Mabille was about seeing and being seen.

Ten years later, in a 1878 letter to the London Telegraph, reprinted in the New York Times, Sala talks of revisiting the Jardin Mabille. He calls the Paris of 1867 a “sparkling, profligate city” and says that the Mabille had been populated by “the most sumptuous costumes that Worth could furnish, the costliest bonnets that Lucy Hocquet could build.” (Worth was Charles Frédéric Worth, the Englishman who emigrated to Paris and became couturier to Empress Éugenie. Today he is considered the father of French haute couture. La Maison Lucy Hocquet was the hat boutique where only the most well-off could afford to buy bonnets.)

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In his 1878 letter, Sala reeled off the names of “the grandest dandies from the clubs, millionaires from Brazil, from Mexico and from California; English peers and members of Parliament, Senators, Deputies, diplomatists, bankers, notaries, adventurers” who had patronized the Bal Mabille in the 1860s. But ten years later, something is amiss. Sala no longer sees the gorgeous women he remembered from his earlier visit. “It is only the poor relations…I seem to see at Mabille this Thursday night.” The “velvets and satins, the cashmeres and lace shawls, the brocades and the jewels, the feathers and the flowers of price” were no more.

Above all, the Bal Mabille was no longer a place where people came to dance. Sala notes:

The dancing is a mere hollow imposture… But to keep up the delusion that Mabille is the favorite home of Terpsichore [goddess of dance] the administration hire a few couples of semi-professional dancers.

These dancers he dismissed as “posture masters and mistresses [who] fling their limbs about to the music of a tolerable band at stated intervals during the evening.” What bothered Sala the most was the presence of what he called the gobemouche (literally, fly-swallower): the horde of gaping, naïve bumpkins. Gone was the sense of exclusivity that had thrilled him in 1867. Gone were the moneyed patrons, or at least those who had the appearance of money.

About the same time, John Russell Young accompanied then ex-President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant, on a world tour in the 1870s. Young went to the Jardin Mabille and saw the paid dancers who “mingle around in the crowd as though they had paid to come in.” Then “when the music commences (generally the music of the harmonious Offenbach), these young men and women rush upon the boarded floor and dance peculiar dances—the ‘Can-can,’ among others—not much worse than I have seen it on the New York stage.”

Young did not like the Jardin Mabille. But he had one explanation of its popularity amongst his fellow countrymen.

Mabille is said to be a very bad place, and [our American friends] attend expecting that something outrageous will certainly happen. I do not imagine that it occurs to one out of ten of our observing countrymen that Mabille is simply an institution kept by a Frenchman for English and Americans to visit.

The same comment is echoed in the writings of David Ross Locke, a.k.a. Petroleum V. Nasby, stage performer and writer, friend of Mark Twain, who set off in 1881 to visit Europe. To defray some of his expenses, he wrote about his travels for the Toledo Blade. Locke/Nasby described professionals at the Jardin Mabille doing their version of a “style of dancing [that] was always in favour in Paris among the people.”

Locke/Nasby had caught on to an important distinction. France had a long tradition of popular dances, that is, dances invented by poor people for whom exuberant movement was a welcome relief in lives filled with stress and hardship. But as tourism became a more important economic force, something happened to the lively dances at the Jardin Mabille. What had once been an individualistic expression of life’s ups and downs in dance, the can-can, a French working-class dance that had originated in the 1830s, was refashioned in the music halls of Britain and the musical stages of America as a public entertainment. Then it was reimported to Paris as an amusement for tourists, endlessly reproduced at the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère.

And so it continues. The tourists are titillated by a dance that seems risqué and the locals earn money from their performance. What does it matter if the dance is not “authentic”? It has been evolving constantly since the 1830s. Culture is never static.

Text by Norman Ball. Historic illustrations from Paris en Images.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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7 Responses to The Jardin Mabille and the origins of the can-can

  1. Thank you, Norman, for another great blog! You gave me a new perspective on the Bal Mabille.

    Paul

  2. Marc Piel says:

    Marc Twain also went to the Jardin Mabille and other similar places and makes a vivid description of the French Can-Can, in his book “The Innocents Abroad” see page 69

    http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=3479178

    • Marc Piel says:

      Sorry for the spelling “Mark Twain”
      Habit I guess?

    • Thank you for the reference. We should probably read the whole thing.

      • Marc Piel says:

        You will enjoy it, but I was surprised by his sarcasm that I had never percieved in his novels. There is a very excellent book on Paris recently published: “Paris Reborn” by Stephane Kirkland. It is about Napoléon III and Haussmann. Really excellent! Regards Marc Piel

        Envoyé de mon iPhone

      • We have both read, and hugely enjoyed “Paris Reborn.” Wonderful insight into that period of history. At some point, we need to mention it in a blog.

  3. Pingback: A Mysterious Sable Specter at the Jardin Mabille: 1880 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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