Category Archives: Dance

Pilou-Pilou

‘Le Pilou-Pilou’ by Justin Clérice published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

The cover for ‘Le Pilou-Pilou‘ shows an elegant Parisienne in smart safari clothes complete with a pith helmet. She joyously dances face to face with a Kanak man in tribal attire. In the background they are cheered on by wildly moving warriors. The serpentine curve of their bodies emphasizes the movement of the dance. It also accentuates her round contours: shake your booty baby!
This 1907 cover is yet another cartoonish illustration by Clérice Frères, probably from the hand of Victor, one of the sons of Charles Clérice.

Maybe Clérice studied the publicity postcard of Pilou-Pilou dancers offered by Café Jouve from the Compagnie Française des Cafés Calédoniens. His drawing of the Kanak warrior’s costume is quite accurate including feathers and a casse-tête, a kind of war hammer. Judiciously or puritanically he omitted the penis gourd.

Postcard of the Exposition Coloniale near Paris in 1907, showing Kanak people from the Loyalty Islands (New Caledonia) in front of their hut.

On the other hand it is probable that in 1907, the same year the sheet music was published, Clérice joined the two million visitors of the Exposition Coloniale near Paris. There, in the Jardin Tropical of the Bois de Vincennes, exotic men and women from the former colonies were exhibited to the crowd. Many overseas natives were lured into joining the show, and among them also Kanak people from New Caledonia. Kanaks are the indigenous inhabitants of this Melanesian territory that was colonised by the French in 1853.

In the midst of the New Imperialism period these human zoo’s had become common. What an embarrassing and tragic chapter that was in Western history. Eighteen years earlier than the 1907 Exposition Coloniale, in 1889, the Parisian Exposition Universelle also had presented a Village Nègre (Negro Village) at the foot of the then brand-new Eiffel tower. The exhibition was visited by 28 million people.

Exposition Universelle, Paris 1889 – Kanak village.

As the major attraction it displayed 400 indigenous people from the French colonies. Ten Kanaks were ‘invited’ and put on display. In the Parisian show these men and women were directed to live ‘spontaneously’ all day long in a poor makeover of their huts. They  had to carry out their daily tasks under public scrutiny and perform ‘tribal rituals’.

‘Le Monde Illustré’, July 27, 1889. Kanak Village Esplanade des Invalides – illustrated by Louis Tinayre.

‘Civilised’ visitors, could get a glimpse of what was believed to be the true culture of these ‘savages’. One was even allowed to touch the Kanaks on display. Humiliatingly, these first Kanak people in France were considered as primitives, even cannibals — surely they were not French citizens.

As part of the show the Kanak men routinely performed the Pilou-Pilou, a traditional tribal dance. See the engraving on the cover of the exhibition’s weekly: the three man dance beneath banners and medallion of the French Republic. Colonial soldiers are standing guard to protect the sophisticated spectators against the barbarians who ferociously wave their war hammers. It is no surprise that popular imagery was soon invaded by the prejudice of cruel black warriors, gesticulating to the diabolic rhythm, whistles and strident cries of the Pilou-Pilou dance.

Have a look at this document, filmed by an amateur in 1943. 

The pilou-pilou dance has a deep-rooted ancestral tradition with a powerful symbolic significance. Each pilou-pilou tells a particular story, whether of a birth, marriage, great battle or even of the arrival of the French missionaries who are said to have given the dance its repetitive name. It traditionally involves many people moving together, sometimes for hours at a time so that the dancers occasionally reach a trance-like state. The French authorities and Catholic priests considered the dance as  indecent and at some point seemed fit to prohibit it.
Re-reading this, we somewhat fear that our attempt at sketching the original pilou dance and the complex history of the Kanak people is a simplified amalgam of what we’ve read, and probably also suffers from stereotype vision, but well, that is the price we pay when writing a blog instead of an ethnological essay.

In 1907, the Parisian Bal Tabarin created a white version of the Pilou-Pilou. At that time the Bal Tabarin was still owned by Auguste Bosc, yes the publisher of the sheet music above. He asked Justin Clérice, uncle of illustrator Victor, to write its music and a certain Eugenio to choreograph simple but cheery dance movements. Clérice’s music has nothing to do with the rhythm of the pilou percussion. It is a slow oom-pah march with a lot of brass. The dance also is but a feeble reflection from the original choreography. It has a risqué movement when the woman slaps the man slightly on the cheek (fig. 8) and a climax when all the dancers cry four times ‘Pilou Pilou‘ very fast and in unison (fig. 10). Great moment of merriment, indeed! However, Justin Clérice’s Pilou-Pilou is as far removed from the original as the Chicken Dance is disconnected from the Swan Lake.

Nowadays in New Caledonia, the pilou-pilou is danced to mark ceremonial occasions: births, weddings and funerals and mostly performed for tourists sake.

The Rugby Club from Toulon has its very own battle cry chanted by packed stadiums and also called Pilou-Pilou. The lyrics suggests that the song has its origin in the Kanak version: ‘The great white coconut trees’ hardly evokes a city in France, does it?

Ah! We the terrible warriors of Pilou-Pilou
Pilou-Pilou!
Who descend from the Mountain to the Sea
Pilou-Pilou!
With our dishevelled women nursing our children
In the shade of the great white coconut trees
Pilou-Pilou!
We terrible warriors push our terrible war cry
AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!
I said “OUR TERRIBLE CRY OF WAR”!
AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!
Because TOULON
RED!
Because TOULON
BLACK!
Because TOULON
RED AND BLACK ! 

Undoubtedly, you are now ready to hear the ceremonious singing battle between Haka and Pilou-Pilou.

Sobre the Vagues – Sur las Wellen – Uber le Olas

Sheet music 'Sobre las Olas' by Juventino Rosas
Sobre las Olas‘ by Juventino Rosas. Published by Friedrich Hofmeister (Leipzig, s.d.)

It is not our collector’s goal, but we have many duplicates of the sheet music ‘Over the Waves’ (Sobre las Olas in Spanish, Über den Wellen in German, Sur les Vagues in French, Sopra le Onde in Italian).

Not surprisingly the waltz, Sobre las olas, has sometimes been incorrectly attributed to Johann Strauss. But is was composed by a Mexican, Juventino Rosas (1868-1894). His life has been documented and filmed. Beware though, because many lies and fantasies have been written about him.  What is true —and sad—  is that he died too young at the age of 26.

Juventino Rosas in 1894 (source: wikipedia:en)

We want to concentrate on the iconic representation of Sobre las Olas on all the above covers. Where does it come from? Why did the music publishers all over Europe apparently follow the convention to represent a young nymph, fairy or woman floating above foaming water, always with bare arms, twirling and undulating, wrapped in lots of light fabric? Send us a postcard if you know the answer, please.

At that time Art Nouveau is in full bloom, and the flowing gowns echo the characteristic whiplash curves employed by many fin-de-siècle artists.

Sopra le Onde‘ by Juventino Rosas. Published by Carisch & Jänichen (Milano, s.d.)

What strikes us, is the graphical similarity with the representation of the famous Serpentine Dance created by Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère, as seen on posters around 1900.

Loïe Fuller, left: by PAL (Jean de Paleologue); middle: by BAC (Ferdinand Sigismond Bach),1892; right: by Jules Chéret, 1897.

Of course, seeing Loïe Fuller in action is another thing. Here she is, metamorphosing from a bat, in an original silent film by Segundo de Chomon. He was a brilliant Spanish film pioneer who worked in Paris and is often compared to Georges Méliès, due to his frequent camera tricks and optical illusions. The film is from 1902 (and not 1905 as indicated on YouTube). Although Segundo de Chomon hand painted some copies, this one is recently stencil-coloured.

In another Segundo de Chomon film The creation of the Serpentine (1908) Mephistopheles interrupts a peaceful evening of dancing in a French salon. Showing his real face, the demon creates a woman who multiplies in numerous Serpentine dancers, all twisting their robes until they finally explode into flames. Wow!

And here is an excerpt from La Danseuse a 2017 biopic of Loïe Fuller, played and danced by none other than I’ll Kill Her Soko. Perhaps not really a must-see, but it gives a good impression of the colour effects that were originally used and designed by Fuller herself.

Now back to our Sobre las Olas with an Uzbek interpretation. It surely beats kittens on Facebook.

Table of six ‘Sobre las Olas’ sheet music above: (clockwise starting top left) (1) published by Ernst & Paul Fischer (Berlin, s.d.); (2)published by Alfred Michow (Berlin, s.d.); (3) published by Adolf Kunz (Berlin, s.d.); (4) published by Otto June, Leipzig, s.d., illustration signed G.B; (5) published by Anton J. Benjamin (Hamburg, s.d.); (6) unknown publication.

Doing the Raccoon: the collegiate style

‘Doing the Raccoon’ by Raymond Klages & J.Fred Coots, published by Francis-Day (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Würth.

We see three couples dancing a foxtrot. From the academic gown and black cap we can assume that they are students. Possibly the building in the back is their Alma Mater. But the French illustrator Würth failed to draw the essence of the American song. Fortunately the original cover reveals what ‘Doin’ the Raccoon‘ is about, namely dancing gaily in a thick raccoon coat.

‘Doing the Raccoon’ by Raymond Klages & J.Fred Coots, published by Remick Music Corp (New York 1928)

The flashy full-length fur coat was the trend in the 1920s and 30s. Especially American college boys —and even some young women— adopted this fashion in the Roaring Twenties.

College men, knowledge men,
Do a dance called raccoon;
It’s the craze, nowadays,
And it will get you soon.
Buy a coat and try it,
I’ll bet you’ll be a riot,
It’s a wow, learn to do it right now!

The raccoon fur coat craze became identified with affluent students at the Ivy League colleges and universities:

Oh, they wear ’em down at Princeton,
And they share ’em up at Yale,
They eat in them at Harvard,
But they sleep in them in jail!


The coats were particularly popular among the playful students on campus: fun seekers or male jazz enthusiasts who got nicknamed collegiates or Joe College. These cheery types would drive dilapidated old cars, wear a straw hat or fedora and carry a hip flask of illicit booze. They made it very clear that you didn’t need to go to class to become collegiate:  slip into your huge fur coat and dance the raccoon!

The raccoon coat became a fashion symbol of the Jazz Age. It was popularised by celebrities: football players, actors, singers, 

‘I love no one but you’ by Phil Spitalny, published by Phil Spitalny (Cleveland, 1927) and illustrated by Geo Orpin.

 … and even by avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp wearing a raccoon coat (1927)

While the raccoon coat originally appealed to a white clientele, the modern and rich black American man and woman followed suit. James VanDerZee, recording Harlem’s growing middle class, took this beautiful photo of a couple dressed in similar raccoon coats in their luxurious sleek Cadillac. They embody sophistication and wealth during the Harlem Renaissance.

Couple in Raccoon Coats, Harlem by James Van Der Zee (1932).

I had never heard of raccoon coats before. I only remember Walt Disney’s romanticised version of Davy Crockett wearing a coonskin cap in the series from the 1950’s.

Portrait of Fess Parker, best known for his Davy Crockett role in the Walt Disney’s TV series.

But well, that wasn’t the real Davy Crockett. Neither was this stereotype of Davy Crockett on the cover of a 19th-century sheet music. In fact it is the actor Frank Mayo with moustaches and a dead animal sitting on his head. From 1872 until his death in 1896, he frequently played the role of Davy Crockett, the 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman and politician.

Davy Crockett March’ by George Loesch published by White Smith & C° (Boston, 1874).