The hidden story of the Apache dance
Appearances can be misleading

Richard Powers

Have you seen the French Apache dance?  In Irene Castle's words, this was a dance "in which the male dancer tries to demolish the female dancer, as spectacularly as possible, and usually succeeds."  Surprisingly, the Apache remained a popular cabaret act for over sixty years, from shortly after 1900 through the 1960s.

A common misperception today is that the Apache dance was condoned violence against women.  Another misconception is that it was male backlash against emerging women's independence and freedoms at the turn of the last century.  It's certainly understandable why people might believe these things, given the dramatic appearance of the dance.

The real story is more interesting than that.  In fact, the Apache dance was created by a woman, as a statement of independence and empowerment.

If you're a historian, you know that a common pitfall in the field is judging earlier events by today's standards.  History is a one-way street that only moves forward, from an earlier perspective, and the only way to understand the motives that propelled events forward is to understand the mindsets of the earlier eras.  Women's independence and empowerment have come a long way in the past century, and if you judge the Apache dance by today's standards, you'll miss the significance that this dance had for women back then.

So let's go back two hundred years.

In the 19th century, Parisian women were confined by the same restrictions and double standards experienced by women in England, the United States, and pretty much the rest of the world.  A married women was considered to be the property of her husband, who also legally owned whatever property she used to have.  Many marriages were arranged by fathers.  Women were told to be passive, and submissive to men.  A double standard allowed a husband to go out at night and mingle with others, while his wife had to stay home and tend the household.  This was a part of the code known today as the Separate Spheres.  This doctrine established two domains of life: the public and the private, or domestic.  Traditionally, the husband would be in charge of the public domain (work, finances, legal and civic matters) while the wife would be in charge of the private domain (cooking, raising children, sewing, running the household).  The extension was that men could venture out in public alone, while women had to stay out of the public eye, unless accompanied by a man.  Ladies were even prohibited from crossing a ballroom floor alone, unaccompanied by a gentleman.

In Paris, women were allowed to briefly step outside of these restrictions once a year during Carnival, which was notoriously a time of breaking society's rules.  For the few days before Lent, culminating with Mardi Gras, women could speak in an unguarded manner and exchange insults, smoke and drink, travel without accompaniment and dress as a man.  Beginning in the 1830s, some of these freedoms were extended to the "bal public" dance gardens of Paris.  That's a long story in itself, but essentially the lorettes and the dancers at the bals publics led the way to an emerging women's independence by the end of the 19th century.  These women acquired their financial independence, which gave them the freedom to practice many activities which were formerly only allowed for men, such as owning a house, having a political opinion and being able to freely explain it, going out anywhere alone, and writing novels or memoirs for money.  They were some of the first Parisian women to treat men as equals, which was why many men were so fond of them — this was new, and more exciting than most women they knew.


One of these women was Mistinguette.  She dared to step out of the private domestic sphere into the public eye, performing as a singer and dancer onstage, around 1900.  One of her early dance partners was Maurice Chavalier (far right photo), an unknown singer ten years younger than Mistinguette.  Side note: In 1909 she changed the spelling of her stage name to Mistinguett, dropping the final e, but we haven't reached that date yet so we're keeping the early spelling.

Let's temporarily leave Mistinguette, to look at the underworld of the Apaches at this time, around 1900.  These were members of street gangs in Montmartre, Belleville and the Barrières, who committed crimes of great violence, that were in turn covered sensationally in the local newspapers.  These hooligans were mostly young men, who swaggered with an arrogant pride, dressed distinctively and were "handy with a knife."

After a particularly heinous crime in 1902, the newspaper reporter Authur Dupin wrote the headline "Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville," referring to the perceived savagery of the American Indians as described in James Fenimore Cooper novels, popular at that time.  The French pronounce it ah-PAHSH, and the term stuck.


Now we skip ahead to 1908.

Max Dearly (in the left-side photo) was a Parisian entertainer – an actor and dancer.  Maurice Mouvet (in the right-side photo) was an American dancer, born in New York City but working in Paris in 1908.  These two men both claimed to have invented the Apache dance in 1908.  Plenty of press releases, posters and photos confirm that Max Dearly performed it in 1908 with Mistinguette, in the Moulon Rouge show La Revue du Moulin, as depicted below.


The Apache became a sensation in 1908.  At the left above is a poster of Mistinguette and Dearly's 1908 Apache.  At the right is a beautiful large sculpture (in my collection) from the same year.

The upper right corner of this sheet music cover says, "The Apach's Dance. Created and arranged by Monsieur Max Dearly."  All of the sources that I found, from 1908 to all of today's Web pages on the subject, pass on the story that one of these two men - or both - created the Apache dance.

But when Mistinguett wrote her autobiography later in her life, she claimed that she had created the concept, before 1908, and that Max Dearly was only one of her later partners.  Which side was telling the truth?

The answer is on page two (click here).

© Copyright 2012 Richard Powers