The number of café-concerts and dance-halls in Paris increased hugely in the late nineteenth century, bringing dancing within reach of every social class and creating all sorts of new and unconventional forms of dance.
Dancing became a symbol of freedom and enjoyment, but also of shallow sensuality and moral decay.
The dancers’ manic movements and the dance-halls’ overheated atmosphere inspired artists to represent them in caricatural and decorative prints.
The biggest dance craze was the chahut – an extreme version of the cancan, in which the grinning dancers waved their legs about wildly to reveal their frilly underwear.
Artists turned the swishing skirts into decorative expanses in their prints, capturing the energy of the performers and their audience.
The ruling class meanwhile, dismissed dancing like this as ‘hysteria’ and ‘epilepsy’.
Experimentation and freeform dance
In addition to these provocative dances, the ethereal style of Loïe Füller was a favourite subject for printmakers. Her elegant choreography served as a contrast with the standard image of the dancer as femme fatale.
Artists also depicted the dance-halls where both bourgeois and working-class men and women came together to swirl around the dance-floor, the ultimate leisure pursuit.
Richard Thomson et al., Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, Washington 2005
Annette Dixon et al., The dancer: Degas, Forain, Toulouse-Lautrec, Portland 2008
Rae Beth Gordon, Dances with Darwin 1875–1910, Aldershot 2008