Defending the Cancan

The cancan, with its high kicks by a chorus line of female dancers in ruffled skirts, was once considered dangerous to good morals. “T. B. M.” wrote to the Omaha Herald in 1875, denouncing the dance, soon to be performed in Omaha, as too risque. “OLD MORALITY,” a correspondent to the Omaha Daily Bee, on March 2, 1875, disagreed, criticizing “T. B. M.” for attacking a dance “of a doubtful nature” while ignoring lurid newspaper coverage of a contemporary sex scandal.

“OLD MORALITY” said: “In commendable self-knowledge, he [T. B. M.] fears that the prurience of diseased imaginations will be gratified by witnessing the Can-can, that all that is good, and pure and chaste to our Omaha youth, will be obliterated and wiped out by the improper array of tricots and low-necked dresses. He asks, that, while it may be impossible to suppress the proposed performances, the public may show its indignation at the intended affront by leaving the seats of the Academy [of Music] unoccupied and thus save us from the awful doom of sinking into a bottomless pool of iniquity and sin.

“I pity T. B. M. He is evidently a nice young man, that never stole apples from his neighbor’s orchard in his boyhood, and never missed a lesson in his Sunday school, a young man that would think it an immortal sin to smoke on the Sabbath or drink anything but water on a week day. He belongs to that numerous class of people who will do anything to keep up the appearance of strict propriety, and would not for the world be charged with anything indecent or immoral.

“But does not his desire to let ‘the shameless creatures of the LaBerg dancing troupe dance to an empty house,’ come just a little bit too late, after the combined press of the country, all the leading journals, the Omaha Herald included, have prepared the public mind for a show of this sort and have awakened a taste for exhibitions of a lewd character . . . in the publication of the revolting, disgusting, shameless Beecher-Tilton affair[?] [In this highly publicized scandal, clergyman Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, New York, was charged with committing adultery with a friend’s wife, Elizabeth Tilton. Coverage given the matter by free love advocate Victoria Woodhull and others created a national sensation.]

“What is worse to pollute the public mind by the most minute descriptions of the particulars of the Brooklyn scandal case, . . . or to put on exhibition a performance which includes some dances of a doubtful nature? . . . The performance of the can-can you and your family need not attend; the reading of the newspaper you cannot prevent. Which is the worst in its bad results?”

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