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Paris’ Moulin Rouge (built in 1885) is known for its Champagne-filled parties that pioneered cabaret and the famous French cancan dance. But from devastating fires to its hidden quaint windmill past, read on to discover the fascinating things you never knew about the most famous cabaret in the world.
The iconic image of a Moulin Rouge dancer is the slim graceful figure of a beautiful leg-kicking lady. But what not many people realise is that the Moulin Rouge actually auditions for males, too. All that’s required for its male dancers – in addition to the usual serious dance training with a good classical base and talent in modern jazz – is a well-proportioned muscular body, a minimum height of 185cm, a great stage presence and bright personality.
On 27 February 1915, a devastating fire broke out, most likely due to a short circuit. It spread through the entire building in a matter of minutes, completely destroying the auditorium and the ballroom. Only the façade and a portion of the stage were still standing. The cabaret shut down for six years until it was reconstructed in 1921.
The iconic windmill gives a glimpse into the otherworldly past of Paris, where Montmarte was once a tiny village full of windmills. Almost unbelievably, there once were around 15 windmills on the Montmartre Butte used to grind wheat, press grapes and materials for factories. There are two remaining windmills today: the Radet and the Blute-Fin.
The impressive high leg-kick wasn’t just a show of incredible flexibility. Sometimes it would be exhibited as a warning to men taking unwanted liberties, threatening a kick in the face if they persisted. Other times, the high leg-kick would be used to win a bet where the woman vows to be able to remove a man’s hat without even using her hands.
Built in 1885, the Moulin Rouge dazzled the people of Paris as the capital’s first electric building. It was designed by Adolphe Léon Willette, whose ideas for a brightly coloured electric-powered facade would become an emblem of Paris forever. When the dance shows started at 10pm, the cabaret would light up Place Blanche in a burst of colour never seen before.
Moulin Rouge is most well-known for its explosive high-energy can-can dance, with a chorus line of beautiful female dancers ruffling their dresses between a series of high kicks, splits and cartwheels. But there’s a whole range of famous performers who have graced these stages from the likes of Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and Josephine Baker, and not just dancers, but also singers such as American legend Frank Sinatra and France’s national chanteuse Édith Piaf.
This now awe-inspiring dance show was once considered scandalous. This was largely due to the fact that women wore ‘pantalettes’ with an open crotch, meaning that a high kick could be unintentionally too revealing, propagating fears about prostitution.
While the Moulin Rouge has known its fair share of scandal, that has never deterred royal blood from visiting. On 26 October 1890, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, booked a table to marvel at this famous dance troupe. A funny story is that La Goulue (stage name of dancer Louise Weber), half-poised with her leg in the air and her head shoved in her skirts, recognised Edward and yelled: “Hey, Wales, the Champagne’s on you!”
If you ever see the show, you’ll be stunned by the sheer quantity of feathers – the Moulin Rouge actually owns its very own a feather company, housed in the theatre building in order to meet the needs of the demanding costume designers. It’s Maison Février that has been crafting the finest of feathers since 1929 for the gorgeous boas and feathered hats. If you’re lucky enough to peep backstage, you’ll also find a whole room dedicated to sequins, as well as the feathers – every dancer’s dream.
The Guinness Book of Records stated that Moulin Rouge dancers could lift their legs 29 times in the space of 30 seconds during the cabaret’s 125-year anniversary celebration that took place in 2014. But not satisfied with just record-setting, a solo dancer from the Féérie show lifted his leg above his head 30 times in 30 seconds, breaking the already epic world records.