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The Can-Can

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

The Peerless Giuseppina Morlacchi, who would later become Texas Jack's wife and costar, introduced the scandalous Can-Can dance to America in January of 1868 at the Theatre Comique in Boston.

It’s easy to imagine that the can-can that inflamed New England in the cold winter of 1868 was the same dance we see performed today, but the truth is we have no record to describe the particulars of the can-can as performed by Morlacchi and the rest of DePol's Grand European Star Ballet Troupe.

It is impossible to say if they were wearing the same ruffled skirts and black tights as depicted in the 1960 film Can-Can. While Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and dancer Juliet Prowse were filming the movie, famed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the set and took the opportunity to tell his countrymen that the dancing, the film, and American culture were " depraved" and "pornographic."

If the dance depicted above was spoken of in such harsh language in the 1960s, you can imagine how scandalous the dance's American premiere was nearly 100 years earlier.

In Puritan Boston in the 1860s, the scandal was very real, and many viewed the can-can, and by extension, the dancers performing it, with the same judgment Krushchev would employ a century later. "The ballet itself is a legitimate and pretty entertainment, to which as much as to opera or play a true man may take his daughters, or in which he may permit them to join," wrote a reporter for Boston's Christian Register newspaper. "No true man will encourage an entertainment in which he thinks a true woman should not, under any circumstances, join. The prostitution of the ballet to the demands of the lowest appetites is an evil which none ought to deprecate more than those persons who with real public spirit built a beautiful theatre for the elevation and improvement of the drama."

In Boston's Daily Advertiser newspaper, in a piece headlined "The Immoral Drama at Boston," a reporter told his readers that:

"An exhibition, call it what you will, in which women as nearly naked as flesh-colored tights fitting closely to the whole form can make them, dance and posture and with kisses and motion offer to the eye every lascivious suggestion that can be acquired by sight, is nightly attended in Boston—pianoforte-leg-covering Boston—by church members, lawyers, doctors, indeed the prominent examples of the city, and these too with wives and daughters accompanying. The young ladies are—allowed, shall I say? No, let me rather say obliged—to sit beside young gentlemen of their acquaintance and look upon what I have attempted to describe, while every new posture elicits shouts of delight and applause from their possible partners of the last or the following evening...fifteen years ago, even in France, such an exhibition as this would have been closed by the police! One of the worst features in this case is the fact that in M’lle Morlacchi the managers had an “artiste” such as had rarely, if ever, been seen in America, and it is the misfortune of this young woman to have encountered managers and a public taste that obliged her to appear in such an exhibition. It is my opinion that the grand jury would find a true bill under laws forbidding lewd and immoral exhibitions, or even under law against improper exposure of the person, were the character of this performance brought to its notice. Might it not be well for some member of the church to complain, or failing this, for "some other men" to complain and call the large number of respectable witnesses who have seen the performance to testify?"

These and similar pieces were printed throughout the country. A writer named Visor for the Winona, Minnesota, Daily Republican wrote:

"The Can-Can...words fail to do justice to the intense—well, I may as well say it,'s poses, gestures, motions, do them gently as you may, are worse than Swinburne* or Johannes' 'Epithalamium.**' It's all nonsense to say that 'to the pure all things are pure.; Such an admission would knock the purity of every Old-school Presbyterian in the land who should see the 'Can-can.' No one could, with common sense, view the 'Can-can' as an ideal of purity, not even a stone angel or an artificial soprano***. Seriously, the 'Can-can' shocks me."

Despite the writer's obvious shock and disdain for the dance, he could not help but be enchanted by the dancer. The Philadelphia Press, which reprinted the piece, noted that the writer "in the same letter, speaks of 'Morlacchi, the premiere danseuse;' praises her magnificent form, and writes admiringly of the 'remarkably fine ballet.' We fear that the injurious effects of the 'Can-can' have already begun to work upon Visor. He must stop going to the theatre."

In Boston and across the country, something remarkable happened. Those who spoke out against the Can-can could not help but heap praise on Morlacchi, the dancer who introduced it, and this praise seems to have mitigated their outrage. In Boston, and then across the country as the Morlacchi Ballet Troupe toured, not only single men but families and children flooded theaters to see Giuseppina Morlacchi and her dancers. The Can-can was usually the closing piece, and often it was encored for a repeat performance immediately following the first. A reporter for the Portland Oregonian paper summed it up:

"Blasina, Lupo, Sohlke, Lapointe, Diani and Aurelia Ricci—they are all brilliant luminaries. To see these delicate creatures dance is to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of beholding lovely women in all sorts of lovely attitudes—now erect upon the great toe; now horizontal in mid air like a swallow skimming a field of clover; now whirling like a comet and sparkling like some living opal; and now in moments of sudden repose, like limpid fresh water, frozen in an act of falling...Attention last night was conferred—if we may use the word among so much bewilderment—upon Mlle. Giuseppina Morlacchi...she has long been heralded...her entrance was the signal for a spontaneous outburst of that noble enthusiasm which naturally swells the manly bosom at sight of a beautiful creature flashing in upon her lovely legs. Mlle. Morlacchi is a beautiful creature and she came upon the stage like a sudden ray of light. Embedded poetry is Morlacchi. There is a certain sweet gravity in her face, which betokens feeling; a certain precision of method in her style that betokens thought. These indications of character commended her strongly to critical approbation...when we say then, that Mlle. Morlacchi's dancing is characteristic of herself we say enough. She is of the spiritual order of women, small, delicate, fiery, with a fine little head and a luminous face, and she dances with all her soul as well as her body."

When Morlacchi passed away in 1886, one obituary writer remarked, "I find that the record and the traditions agree as to her exemplary character, her exceptional probity, and her rare sense of honor and justice. Isn't this delicious in a ballet dancer?" In the end, Morlacchi—the dancer who first brought the scandalous Can-can to America on the stage of Boston's Theatre Comique—was one of Massachusetts' most cherished and admired women.


*Algernon Charles Swinburne was an English poet who wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism.

**Johannes Goethe

***A castrated man.

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