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date: 21 May 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Unlike the linear, regimented choreography associated with the cancan in the twentieth century, the early cancan (1821–1848) was defined by improvisation within the structure of the quadrille. This chapter examines primary sources on improvisation in the early cancan in the light of Michel de Certeau’s (1984) theory of ‘tactics’ and Danielle Goldman’s (2010) application of Michel Foucault’s (1997) notion of ‘practices of freedom’ to dance improvisation. The chapter argues that the cancan dancers’ improvisations drew on popular performance repertoires that embodied liberty and opposition to authority, grafting them into the contredanse/quadrille’s performance of French national identity. Those who were disenfranchised by the postrevolutionary monarchies played with alternative embodiments of liberty through these improvisations, creating a weapon of subtle resistance that the authorities could do little to suppress.

Keywords: Cancan, popular dance, improvisation, chahut, quadrille, contredanse, liberty, tactics, practice of freedom, postrevolutionary France

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