CHAPTER 04: The French Cancan – legendary theme music

“The Bonsoir Diaries” by Kumar de Silva is a cocktail of chapters, bursting at their seams with pithy asides, a trail of faux pas, and tit-bits from behind the scenes, marinated with anecdotes and drizzled with nostalgia, revealing everything you never saw on your favourite television show…from the ‘80s through the ‘90s into 2000. 


I joined Bonsoir six months after its inception, and the theme with its French cancan music was already there. It was very catchy, easy-to-remember, and soon became instantly identified with the Bonsoir TV programme. It was to remain so for many years. 

I had people telling me that in certain shops, restaurants, public places and even homes, the French cancan music meant that it was 9.00 p.m. on a Monday night. Funny how the mind works and the associations it makes. 

People had unconsciously come to tell the time with the French cancan. Such was the impact this delightful little piece of music had on the general public. We were delighted too, to say the least. 

We later explained to our viewers that the French cancan was really a piece of music called “le galop infernal” from Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), the first full-length operetta written by the German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).

According to Wikipedia: “The French cancan is a high-energy and physically demanding music hall dance, traditionally performed by a chorus line of female dancers who wear costumes with long skirts, petticoats, and black stockings. The main features of the dance are the lifting and manipulation of the skirts, with high kicking and suggestive, provocative body movements.”

The cancan first appeared in the working-class ballrooms of Montparnasse in Paris around 1830. It was a more lively version of the ‘galop’, a dance in quick 2/4 time. The cancan was, therefore, originally a dance for couples, who indulged in high kicks and other gestures with arms and legs. 

At this time, and throughout most of the 19th century in France, the dance was also known as the chahut. Both words are French, cancan meaning “tittle-tattle” or “scandal”, hence a scandalous dance, while chahut meant “noise” or “uproar”. 

The dance did cause something of a scandal, and for a while, there were attempts to repress it. Occasionally people dancing the cancan were arrested, but it was never officially banned, as is sometimes claimed. Throughout the 1830s, it was often groups of men, particularly students, who caused the most outrage by dancing the cancan at public dance-halls.

But women performers were much more widely known in the period that followed. They were mostly middle-ranking courtesans, and only semi-professional entertainers; unlike the dancers of the 1890s, such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, who were highly paid for their appearances at the Moulin Rouge and elsewhere. 

Wikipedia also notes: “A cancan dancer would sometimes stand very close to a man and bet that she could take off his hat without using her hands. When he took the bet, she’d execute a high kick that would take off his hat—and give him a quick look at her drawers while she was at it. It was also a warning that anyone taking unwanted liberties with a dancer could expect a kick in the face.”

Early editions of the Oxford Companion to Music defined the cancan as: “A boisterous and latterly indecorous dance of the quadrille order, exploited in Paris for the benefit of such British and American tourists as will pay well to be well shocked. Its exact nature is unknown to anyone connected with this Companion.”

The cancan has often appeared in ballet, most notably Léonide Massine’s La Boutique Fantasque (1919) and Gaîté Parisienne, as well as The Merry Widow. A particularly fine example can be seen at the climax of Jean Renoir’s 1954 film French Cancan. French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced several paintings and a large number of posters of cancan dancers. 

And so Bonsoir and the French CanCan became inseparable!


Next week: Chapter 05 – Yasmin Rajapakse on board!