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From Gangs to Ballroom: The Apache Dance


Created by a street gang just before 1900, the Apache was a brutal dance. Stylized into a ballroom exhibition dance, it influenced modern performing arts. At the turn of the century, the Montmartre district of Paris was home to a very dangerous street gang. After a horrific fight between three gangmembers, a French journalist referred to the gang as “Apaches,” believing that the Native American Apache tribe were ruthless murderers.

The Origin of the Apache Dance

The gang was proud of the name. Calling themselves Apaches, they spent their nights in underworld cabarets. They reinacted the violent incident that made them famous over and over again in a dance, which became known as “the dance of the underworld.”

The dance, which was soon named the Apache, usually enacted a domestic quarrel or an argument between a pimp and a prostitute. There was no set format, but the dance was intense and brutal. Alhough the male did not always win the battle, the version most remembered is a fight between a man and woman, in which the woman finally submits.

The Apache dance might include fake slapping, hitting and punching. The male might lift the woman and throw her across the room, slam her on the floor, or drag her by the hair. It was not a dance for amateurs, and it is said that female partners often died, breaking their backs or necks during the brutal dance.

In spite of its brutality, the dance inspired deep passion. A particulary decadent trend in the history of the Apache dance occurred when bored, wealthy Parisian women paid real gang members to dance with them in their homes. The more ferocious the reputation of the gangster, the higher the price he demanded.

Maurice Mouvet Creates A Ballroom Dance

Maurice Mouver wanted to be a dancer from the time he was a boy and became one of the most successful dancers of the early twentieth century. He began his career dancing on the Vaudeville stage.

A friend of Mouvet convinced him to visit an underground cabaret, where Mouvet first saw the Apache dance. Fascinated by the wild dance, he returned to the clubs numerous times.

Popularity of the Apache Dance

Discerning the deep sensuality underlying the brutality of the dance, Mouvet refined it into graceful and stylistic gestures, while maintaining the intense passion of the dance. His adaptation of the dance was an artistic performance that appealed to deep emotions in the spectators.

Parisians immediately embraced the Apache dance as performed by Mouvet and his current partner, Leona Hughes. The most famous exhibition of the dance occurred when Mouvet and Hughes performed at the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret.

By 1908 the dance was copied and performed in America by other couples. However it was Mouvet and Madelaine D’Harville who first captivated the American audience when they performed the Apache dance in New York in 1911.

The Tango Triumphs; the Apache Becomes an Exhibition Dance

The popularity of the Apache dance continued throughout the 1920’s, when the Argentine Tango became popular. Like the Apache, the Tango was a shameful dance of the lower class. It was eagerly adopted by upper class European travelers who brought the dance to the United States.

While the Tango endures to this day as one of the most popular ballroom dances, the Apache dance remained an exhibition dance. The Apache could never become an item on the dance floor for two reasons:

  1. The sheer amount of space required to perform an authenic Apache dance rendered it impossible for multiple couples to share the dance floor at once.
  2. The high level of skill required to perform the Apache dance without injury excluded many ballroom dancers; hence, the Tango also became the choice even for professional ballroom dancers.

Today, the Apache dance is not well known to the public. However, in its day, the Apache dance was the most popular of all exhibition ballroom dances.

The “Mother of Modern Dance” Begins her Career Dancing the Apache

Martha Graham, considered by many to be “the mother of modern dance,” began her career dancing the Apache dance and the Tango in Greenwich Village, New York. So avant garde was Graham in her day that she enraged some audiuences. It is highly possible that the two new passionate, “rogue” dances influenced the direction of her work.

Apache Dance, Modern Classical Music and Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel, best known for his composition Boléro, formed the Societe des Apaches” in Paris in 1900. Among the club members were seven famous composers including Igor Stravinsky. They used the name “Apaches,” to protest against the conservatism of French composers. One of Ravel’s masterpieces, Miroirs, was composed while at the club.

Maurice Ravel had a wide range of influences on his music, including traditional 18th Century composers, and Liszt and Chopin on the piano. However, his most popular work, the Boléro, (used as background music for a love scene in the movie Ten) was very likely influenced by the Apache dance.

  • The Apache dance was characterized by a rhythmic progression that built into a climax of heated passion. Ravel’s Boléro repeats a slow, rhythmic progression a full 17 times until it reaches a crescendo.
  • The original Apache gangsters used their women to allure and distract unsuspecting tourists while they were robbed. The story behind the Boléro was that of a gypsy who mezmerized male guests with her slow dance.

The Apache Dance in Silent Film

In the nascent world of silent film, exaggerated emotions were of the utmost importance. The Apache dance was ideal for depicting emotions. Rudolph Valentino, the “heart-throb” of these early movies, was said to be an expert in the Apache dance but did not know the Tango.

  • According to the Streetswing Dance Video Archive, In the film, Rogues Romance, Valentino pretended to do a Tango by performing a toned-down Apache dance.
  • The Apache dance also appeared in the silent film, A Tough Dance.
  • The silent film, Les Vampires, was not about “vampires,” but about a real Apache gang who went by the name “the vampires.” The actors were Apache gang members performing the authentic version of the dance.

The French Apache Dance

Originally a rough and brutal show, the Apache dance was stylized into a highly skilled ballroom dance. Although considered by many as vulgar, the French Apache dance appealed to deep emotions in audiences at the turn of the century. While the Apache remained an exhibition dance, it influenced several art forms, including dance, classical music and and silent film.

An Apache Dance fron the 1935 film, Charlie Chan in Paris Music used is The “Valse des rayons” from Jacques Offenbach’s ballet “Le Papillon”(Used in a 1908 production at the Moulin Rouge and has become the music most associated with the dance.)

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