Capturing the Cancan
: body politics from the Enlightenment to Postmodernity

  • Clare Parfitt

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The subject of this thesis is the cancan – a dance form that emerged in Paris in the 1820s, and that has undergone a number of transformations in its continued performance, both live and onscreen, over the last two hundred years. The thesis focuses on particular historical moments during which the cancan‟s embodiment of social tensions caused it to gain visibility as a site of both desire and moral panic, often centring on the supposedly uncontrollable bodies that it creates and performs. These moments are characterised by the employment of various legal, mechanical, digital and critical technologies to capture the cancan‟s disorderly performance. The complex relationship between the cancan, these technologies and the shifting historical, cultural and political contexts which animate them, form the crux of the discussion.

The cancan‟s emergence and development as a live dance form in the nineteenth century, its relation to the invention of cinema in the 1890s, its popularity in narrative cinema of the 1920s and 1950s, and its revival in Baz Luhrmann‟s film Moulin Rouge! (2001), are analysed from a postmodern perspective, in which modernist hierarchies of high and low, elite and popular, mind and body, are reinterpreted as structures of power. It is argued that at these moments the cancan becomes a particularly salient mediator of the conflict between rational and irrational body politics that had its origins in the Enlightenment. By embodying irrationality, and later, various intersections of rationality and irrationality, cancan performers and spectators make manifest alternative constructions of the body and society that may be utopian, dystopian, or both. In doing so, they participate corporeally in the ongoing negotiation of post-Enlightenment body politics. The thesis thus seeks to demonstrate the importance of popular cultural forms such as the cancan for reconstructing cultural histories in postmodernity.
Date of Award2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton

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