Because I Can, Can-Can

I was shocked when I learned that Paris has Classpass. In my mind, Paris is still stuck in time. 1945, to be exact. People don’t willingly exercise – they just smoke, and brood, and sit in cafes sipping wine and looking fabulous. But it seems the times, they are a-changing. 

I had some credits still lingering from my membership in New York, so when I realized I had not properly exercised in two weeks, I opened it up and started to scroll through the options… 

In New York, you find a series of HIIT, boxing, and other intense workouts at gyms offered at studios with names that sound more like strip clubs: PLAYGROUND, Mile High Club, EXHALE…

What did I find on the schedule in Classpass Paris? French can-can dancing. 
I laughed out loud.
Just when I thought I’d lost you to modernity France – you find a way to be more classically French than ever.

I’ve been a want-to-be dancer my whole life. Over the years, I’ve taken everything from afro-dance to zumba, but never, have I EVER had the opportunity to dance the can-can. I knew nothing about what this class would entail, and they had no website. But how could I resist signing up? The only information I could find via Classpass reviews was that outfits were provided.

As I arrived, I realized this was definitely not a tourist experience. I was in the French equivalent of a dingy, YMCA basement and definitely the only ex-pat in the room. I was expecting to be the only person there, but the class, which took place on a Saturday night at 6pm, was packed. I surveyed the participants and teacher as I took the last open spot at the barre. 

In my experience in dance classes, there are 3 types of dance teachers:

  1. The Fiesty Foreigner.
    She hails from abroad – usually Argentina or Brazil. She’s older, and sassy, and fabulous! Her highest form of a compliment is “not bad” which she delivers with a sharp eye and no smile. She wears all black, and ballroom heels, and is not afraid to grab your body and warp it into the shape she wants it to be. You’re terrified of her, and yet entranced. 
  2. The Whimsical, Old Man. He’s my personal favorite. He’s slim, and elegant, and always silver-haired. There is a permeant twinkle in his eye and he wears something drapey and neutral colored. He’s mystical, like a male-unicorn, and you feel like if Hogwarts ever needed a dance teacher – he would be recruited.
  3. The Former Ballerina.
    This is the most common. She was a dancer in her heyday, and probably a decent one. But now she is pot-bellied, and has ratted hair and wide ankles. She lives vicariously through the young, able bodies around her, and she shouts her commands and critiques with immense enthusiasm and passion.

Madame Can-Can was the third variety.
Class began at the barre, with series of leg swings, kicks, and stretches to warm our bodies up. I have a few inexplicable gifts in my life, and one of them is flexibility. Lord knows why, but without working at it whatsoever, I have always been able to press my nose to knees, touch my toes, and do a perfect split. (I can also lick my elbow – it’s my drunken, party trick)

As we lifted our right leg to the barre and slid into a deep stretch, she surveyed me from behind.
Impeccable,” she cried with a nod of approval at my extension! “You have can-can-ed before?”

Bless her.
I explained I’ve danced, but mostly ballet. This would be my first time doing the cancan.

She told me some essentials to start with:
Your foot should always be flexed when kicking, not pointed. Your skirt should always be up but never covering your face, and you should always, ALWAYS, smile. 

“Toujours un sourire,” she yelled as we started to kick in a line, “Un sourire, un sourire , un sourire!” She must have yelled it a million times by the end of the class.

It wasn’t a problem for me, I couldn’t wipe mine off actually.

Once we were warm, out came the skirts. Several of the girls had brought their own with three tiers of blue, red, and white ruffles like the French flag. I was instantly jealous. I mentally added one to my Amazon cart as I put on the poor-man’s model, which just had one layer in a bright green. “Next class, I will have that,” I promised myself. “And fishnets!”

We then began to piece together a routine. Learning a few counts of eight at a time. You could see in her eyes she had a grand vision for us. For her, we were not twenty, odd girls in a crappy basement – we were her dancers on stage at the Moulin Rouge! 

Pas mal les filles, pas mal” she cried with satisfaction as we frantically waved our skirts, and yelled “weeeeeeee!”

The thing I’ve learned to appreciate about taking classes in France is that you are treated like a pro, regardless of your beginner-level-status. In America, you are given kid gloves at any “starter” class. You sign liability waivers, must proceed with caution, and everything is over-explained and dumbed-down. In France – they throw caution to the wind! In my cooking class we were given knives so sharp we could have easily lost entire fingers and taught how to de-bone a duck, and in ballet class we conquered pirouettes on day one! So it came as no surprise that our routine in can-can class included a finale where we moved down the line in a domino effect, jumping and falling into a split!

By the end of the hour and a half, we had successfully learned a 64-count can-can number, which we performed two times through. We were off-tempo and disorderly, and ridden with mistakes. It was fabulous. 

As I walked home, I listened to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack, of course, and wondered about the other girls in the class. I knew why I had gone, but what were they doing there? They were normal and fit, and cute young French girls. No one was a pro, or an aspiring showgirl, and it wasn’t in any way a form of exercise. It was Saturday night. Didn’t they have dates to be on? Friends to drink champagne with?

I wondered what the equivalent of an adult, beginner, can-can class was in America, and could only come up with square dancing. Would anything ever posses me, or anyone else I could think of, to go to a crappy, square dancing class at a YMCA on a Saturday night? No. 

In the end, I attributed their attendance to just another way in which the French are proud of their French-ness, their history, and their culture. They were there because they genuinely want to learn the can-can. They will buy next-level skirts in their country colors and devote their Saturday evening to mastering the national dance – because they are French.

After the class, Madame asked if I would come back every week.
“Of course,” I told her! Though in reality, I hope on some future Saturdays I have plans with friends, or handsome, French men.

But it is reassuring for me to know that on a Saturday night, if I have nothing to do and don’t want to stay in – I can find a group of like-minded women who love France as much as I do in a basement in Saint-Germain. And I can spend the evening there, smiling. 

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    What a wonderful experience! I will definitely be sharing this with my students. Your zest for life is so uplifting and refreshing!

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