Cabaret icons

  • 25, Oct 2019
  • All things Paris
  • Jocelyn Wensjoe

During the explosion of cabarets in the late 1800s, there were some legendary women whom made a name for themselves after reciting powerful moves that are still used to seduce the crowd nowadays and introducing sensuality in a very liberal manner, a whole new approach that was surprising yet pleasant for spectators paying to see a live show of women demonstrating what femininity is all about. A few women started off their career in some of the most prominent cabarets known to man, some of which are still in business. We’re going to name the top 13 women who left their mark in the world of glamour and glitter.

Dita Von Teese

Dita Von Teese

Still living it up and showing the audience some skin and a lot of voluptuous moves, Heather Renée Sweet also known as Dita Von Teese is a worshiped burlesque dancer. She is admired for her many talents including being a singer, actress, costume designer and of course a cabaret dancer. She’s been in the entertainment business or many years. Back in 2016, she starred as one of the main guests in Crazy Horse Paris, tickets were sold out instantly! She believes classy striptease is a work of art that needs creativity and dedication until this day at the age of 47 she demonstrates incredibly sensual movements and is still asked to perform on stage. Dita has a special performance that always drives the crowd wild, during her performance she has a life-sized cocktail glass filled with water in which she dips in as if she were a decoration on the glass.

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee

American burlesque dancer Rose Louise Hovick is famously known as Gypsy Rose Lee. She grew up in the shadow of her sister who was a famous actress by the name of June Havoc, but Louise later realized that she could become someone big by joining Minsky’s Burlesque and she did. This is where she obtained the status of an elegant yet witty striptease dancer. One day while she was performing one her the strips on her dress was loose and went on accidentally revealing her body, the audience members were shocked yet astounded, they went on clapping for the act. She made this her main act every night, it is said that she was the one who transformed the era of striptease with a new routine.

Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice

We’re sure you’re familiar with the name, yes friends, Fanny Brice is the main star of the Broadway Musical Hit “Funny Girl”. Not many know this, but Funny Girl was based on the real-life of Ziggfeld Folies main star, Fanny Brice. Born in 1891, Brice’s dream was to become a Broadway star. She became well known when she got the opportunity to be a dancer in Ziegfeld Follies in 1910. She was a humorous individual and it was evident during her acting career as she played the role of Baby Snooks on The Baby Snooks Show. My Man became her signature song in the burlesque revue, and it is also one of the famous songs in Funny Girl the musical. She eventually made it into Hollywood and became a star. Her life story was so intriguing that producer Ray Stark decided to write a musical about her, Barbra Streisand made this play come to life. Funny Girl was nominated for 8 Tony Awards.

Sally Rand

Sally Rand

Known to perform on stage with ostrich feathers, cancan dancer Sally Rand creatively designed ideas that would grab the audience’s attention, for example, her bubble dance and her peek-a-boo feather fan dance revealing parts of her body. During this era, she was arrested 4 times for indecent exposure. In the 1920s she started off her career by starring in silent films and then went on to pursue her true passion for dancing. She was idealized in show business and around the world for exposing parts of her body but not too much considering she was covering most of it up with big feathers, an iconic maneuver used widely in the cabaret business. 

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson is the woman responsible for the rising fame of cabarets in the United States in 1868. She is recognized as “the first burlesque lady”. She, of course, did not invent the cancan, but she did combine cabaret with provocative attire. She traveled from London to the U.S. and introduced The British Blondes, a British burlesque overflowing with striking women. Their trademark was to wear short skirts and show off their attractive legs.

La Goulue

La Goulue

Louise Josephine Weber also known as La Goulue, is a legend in the cabaret world. She was not like most dancers, she did not have a slender body, and some might even say she had an untasteful character, but she made it work for her and became famous. Born in 1866, Weber started dancing at the age of 6 and got a taste of attention by a crowd when she danced in Elysée Montmartre. Later in her life, she became a cancan dancer, her signature moves included particular choreographed steps and teasing the audience when lifting her ruffled skirt, revealing her undergarments. How did she obtain the name “La Goulue” you may ask? Weber gained her name from drinking the audience’s drinks while walking and dancing around their tables. She met Joseph Oller who was contemplating to create a legendary cabaret, now known as the Moulin Rouge. This is when she was recruited to dance in the Moulin Rouge in 1889 at the age of 23. You can say Weber was the founder of combining female sensuality with dancing. La Goulue was Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s favorite subject, he would paint her in many posters in the Moulin Rouge, one of the reasons she gained fame and recognition. She was and still is acknowledged as the queen of cancan.

Jane Avril

Jane Avril

in 1868 she discovers her passion for dancing at a young age, Jane Avril became one of the most famous dancers in the Moulin Rouge. After having lived a life of misery from her mom exploiting her for money, the first of her life breaking her heart, and living in the streets Jane always found a way to keep moving forward and think positive, she did fall in negative temptations, but she found comfort in dancing which saved her life. As soon as Moulin Rouge opened its doors for the first time, Jane was there! She was known for replacing La Goulue after she left the Moulin Rouge, Avril had a different dance style that stood out from others. She became the muse of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec who was a well-known artist that contributed to the fame of many dancers including La Goulue, but Jane was his favorite, up to a point where he wanted to marry her. Thanks to Lautrec Jane’s fame grew. Jane was at the peak of her success when the art form of ballet was trending, she created the ballet of L’Arc-en-Ciel in Folies Bergère. She seduced while she danced, but with class, never in an indecent manner.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker

What a woman! 1906 American born actress went by many names: Josephine Baker, Bronze Venus, Black Pearl, and Creole Goddess in relation to her family background, but her real name was Freda Josephine McDonald. Fearing racial discrimination in Missouri, Baker ran off to Paris, France where she landed her first big gig in La Revue Negre in 1925. This talented star was recognized for her incredibly sensual dance moves and her exotic African American background, she had a very petite figure and knew how to work her hips. She earned her multiple names from working in the world-famous Folies Bergere. Her signature dances were the banana which was composed of arousing moves dance and the Charleston. Josephine Baker wasn’t remembered just as a dancer, actress, or singer, she was a woman of many talents and a strong personality. She fought as an activist against black segregation. In 1939 during World War II she joined the French military and served as an agent of counter espionage. After the war, she was honored with the metal of the French Resistance and with Knight of the Legion of Honor. She made so many friends throughout her career including Grace Kelly, Mick Jagger, Christian Dior, and even general Charles De Gaulle. She is recognized as the first black star.

Mistinguett

Mistinguett

Jeanne Florentine Bourgeois, better known as Mistinguett was a famed French actress, singer, and performer. She lived a full life, dedicating it to her career. She started her dancing career in Folies Bergére in 1911 and then moved on to perform in the Moulin Rouge, like many popular burlesque dancers before and during her time. She performed in nightclubs all the way until she was 72 years old, now that is true passion. She was so highly demanded that she attracted public spectators from France, England, and the United States.

Carrie Finnell

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Carrie Finnell

As a Ziegfeld performer, Carrie Finnell the bad girl of burlesque started in 1917 and holds the record for the longest striptease dance performance in the 1920s consisting of 54 weeks, removing one item from her costume each week, topping off Gypsy Rose Lee’s act. Many spectators attended her act when the last week arrived for Finnell to remove the last article left in her body. She is also recognized for having been the first woman in a cabaret to place tassels on her breasts, a very popular and exotic article used during cancan performances.

Mae west

Mae west

Considered as the 15th greatest actress of all time by the American Film Institute, born in 1893 Mae Jane West was a sex symbol in the 1920s. She started to show her talent at an early age of 3 years old acting out as some of her family members and friends and appeared on stage for the first time at 5 years of age. Mae West got her big break starring in a Broadway comedy show called A La Broadway, and from this day forward she became a playwriter and a director for many plays. One of her plays got her sentenced to 10 days in jail due to too much sexual content, you might think that this ruined her career, but even bad publicity can be good. She was released from jail 8 days later and went on climbing the latter to stardom. At the age of 38, her talents got her an offer to be starred in a leading role in a film with a contract from Paramount Pictures.

Betti Page

Betti Page

Betti Mae Page was randomly spotted for her curvaceous figure by a photographer in 1950 at the age of 27. She was very comfortable with her body and so was everyone else who adored her. Betti was, in fact, Dita Von Teese’s inspiration, because of her Dita dyed her hair black and went into the entertainment industry. Betti performed in more than 50 burlesque films, not everyone was a fan considering some burlesque performances were seen as indecent back then, but it got her recognized.

Blaze Starr

Blaze Starr

Fannie Belle Fleming stood out from other performers with her voluminous red hair, her love for entertainment and of course her beautiful curvy body. On stage she would perform with wild animals such as black panthers and her signature trademark was to do her dance routine and sit on a couch that seemed as if it were set on fire as soon as she sat down, she used multiple props for this act. While working in the French Quarter in New Orleans in the late 1950s, she obtained more publicity after having gotten caught having an affair with Louisiana Governor Earl Long.

There you have it, a long history of cancan dancers who made history and helped cabarets evolve to what they are today. Take a stroll through some of Paris’ memorable cabarets still up and running till this day.

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