How can Paris cabarets, with their near-identical lines of statuesque, scantily-clad showgirls and cancan dancers, adapt in the age of #MeToo?
With yoga, body positive imagery and a new emphasis on what is known as wokeness — or being socially aware — as well as the athleticism of their performers, it appears.
The Lido club on the Champs Elysees has become the latest to try to give its version of the traditional French cabaret a 21st-century makeover.
As the mammy of them all, the Moulin Rouge, approaches its 130th birthday, the Lido has come up with its own “boot camp” exercise programme, with its Bluebell chorus girls and boys sharing their fitness and well-being tips.
The Lido’s younger, edgier rival, Crazy Horse, gave over its stage in June to the “bionic artist” and amputee Viktoria Modesta after firmly rejecting claims that its shows were all about objectifying women.
Meanwhile, the smaller Paradis Latin has taken to sending men out topless to flex their muscles, in among its drag acts, cancan dancers and a unicyclist waiter who juggles champagne bottles.
Franco Dragone, the former Cirque du Soleil stalwart who controversially shook up the Lido’s show in 2015, said he wanted to change the whole tone.
“I wanted to show that women were not objects, and that the Bluebell Girls were taking power,” insisted the Belgian director.
“Even if you are topless for a few numbers, we are high level athletes,” said Alicia, a former ballet dancer, and one of the seven coaches who leads the Lido’s tough daily regime.
– ‘You can’t just be a naked lady’ –
“You can’t just be a ‘naked lady’ to do one hour and 40 minutes of a show,” she told AFP.
Victoria, the British-born “captain” of the Bluebell Girls chorus line, said she “felt very strong” every time she went out on stage.
“It is really important for us — especially in this new show — to show female empowerment. Yes we are topless, but it’s the female form and it’s beautiful and it is to be celebrated.
“We are powerful and we are strong and we all feel very strong when we perform,” she added.
“It’s about confidence. We all really take care of ourselves and I’m very much into yoga, body confidence and feeling good in yourself,” added the dancer.
The Lido has thrown open its doors for a limited period so the public can join its boot camp.
Victoria also shares her eating and well-being tips — eggs on toast for breakfast washed down with a spinach, cucumber, celery and apple smoothie and lots of thankfulness.
Her secret, she says, to surviving 12 shows a week is yoga, which along with pilates and “body pump”, is the backbone of the boot camp courses the Lido is offering to the public.
The men and women taking part also get a chance to participate in an extract from the Lido’s current show, “Paris Merveilles” (Paris Marvels).
– ‘I never hesitated’ –
“To me, regardless of where we are dancing, a career in dance is what we all trained for and it’s what we all want,” Victoria said.
The 33-year-old said she had never had a second thought about becoming a chorus girl, with some of her teachers also pointing her that way from an early age.
“I only ever saw cabaret and the showgirl world as something glamorous and beautiful and something to be celebrated,” she said.
“So I never hesitated for a second.”
The troupe was founded in 1932 by the Irish dancer and choreographer, Margaret Kelly, when she was only 22.
Her heroics during the German Occupation, when she hid her Jewish husband, a stateless pianist and composer who worked at the Folies Bergere, inspired Francois Truffaut’s film, “The Last Metro”, and the BBC drama series, “Bluebell”.
While the Lido claims that it “loves diversity in body and character”, its long-legged dancers have to be at least 1.75 metres (five foot seven inches) to make the cut as a Bluebell girl.
But the women taking part in the cabaret’s boot camp do come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
For several, the classes were not just about upping their fitness but also about being able to walk “this mythic stage”.
“It’s now or never,” one joked to AFP.