The Apache (pronounced Ah-PAHSH, not A-PATCH-ee, like the pronunciation of the Native American Indians) is a highly dramatic exhibition dance that became hugely popular in the Jazz Age. However, it could be seen as politically incorrect in our times due to the fact that it was rather violent, involving aggressive treatment of the female partner.
The French term Apache came about at the turn of the century and was used to describe a dubious character who was part of a Parisian street gang. They were in fact young Paris hooligans but with a more savage and vicious tendency. Prior to 1898 they were known simply as as ‘Vauriens’ or ‘no goods’ but in 1898 a crime was committed in the Faubourg du Temple that changed everything. A man was found bound, gagged, a woman’s hat pin through his nose and his face and neck outrageously cut like a tattoo. A reporter who turned up to cover the case at the Belleville police station and who was obsessed by native American Indian stories penned a headline ‘Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville’. The term struck a cord and was quickly adopted.
The Apaches were defined as seldom younger that fifteen and never older than twenty-two and ‘infected’ the ‘eccentric’ districts of Paris. They were nimble and known for their courage, fiendishness and ability in playing with a knife. They lived in secret dens, got up late and danced in local dives.
Until recently common thought was that the dancers Maurice Mouvet and Max Dearly created the Apache dance in Paris in 1908. But the dance was not new and had even earlier origins as Mouvet explained in 1912 ‘the Apache dance was brought out in Paris 14 years ago by one of the great dancers but some reason it didn’t go.’ According to Richard Powers in his blog ‘The Hidden story of the Apache dance’ there was an earlier version called ‘Cake Walk Parisien’ performed by Mistinguett and a Mr Paulo in 1903. Clearly, it had been somewhat forgotten.
Maurice Mouvet was dancing in the Cafe de Paris one night and was persuaded to accompany his friend, the dancer Max Dearly, into the Paris underworld. They made their way to an Apache den described as an evil smelling cellar and they saw some Apaches in action and dancing. They made several trips to other low cabaret haunts for dance inspiration and became entranced with the Apache or Valse Chaloupee. Eventually, it was unveiled to an eager Parisian audience. Max Dearly performed it one night in Paris at the Ambassadeurs and Maurice in Ostend at the Kursall. A short while later, in the summer of 1908, Maurice and his partner Leona performed the new dance at Maxim’s and Max Dearly made an even bigger impact with the dance partnered with Mistinguett in the Moulin Rouge show La Revue du Moulin. Perhaps Mistinguett had some influence in the reborn dance.
In essence the Apache dance performed by Dearly and Mouvet illustrated a domestic fight between two lovers. It was wild, swinging, swaying and brutal. It entailed a French underworld character (the Apache, usually a pimp) asking his woman (usually regarded as a prostitute) for money. When she refuses there are mock slaps and punches, the man picks her up and throws her to the ground, or lifts and carries her while she struggles or feigns unconsciousness. Sometimes, the woman fought back and sometimes the man dragged her by her hair before whirling her in a circle and dumping her in a heap in the corner. She would crawl back, beg forgiveness and profess her love. Eventually they perform a dance which was in essence a rhythmic waltz.
The Apache became one of Maurice’s signature dances and was refined in the course of time to be less brutal and more socially acceptable. Although it never achieved the popularity amongst the masses like the Tango or the Charleston it did continue to be a highly popular exhibition dance and performed by dozens of dancing duos in legitimate stage shows, vaudeville, cabaret and in films.
The dance took little time to be replicated. In September 1908 it was seemingly performed for the first time in America by Alice Eis and Bert French in the Broadway show The Mimic World. Critics thought it was nothing sensational but simply a pantomime showing the treatment given to a woman by a lower class bully. Further renditions were staged by Joseph Smith and Louise Alexander in the Circle Theatre (December 1908) and M.G. Mellasse and Mlle Corie at the Lincoln Square theatre (January 1909).
In the summer of 1909 Paris saw the first of the society Apache Gala Balls (bal d’Apaches) given by a prominent Parisienne countess where all guests attended in disguise as Paris hooligans described as a motley crowd of desperate looking ruffians. Later, in January 1913 Bustanoby’s restaurant in New York also staged an Apache night and decorated the room to look like a typical Apache den with fancy dress compulsory. However, in London, The Tatler was not amused by some of the new dances calling them vulgar and degenerate to the British temperament ‘things that originated in the negro quarters of American cities and among the Apaches of Montmartre underworld are surely not for us.’
By August 1909 the Apache was even performed in Australia by Bert Gilbert and Miss Lottie Sargent in a new musical comedy King of Cadonia at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney. The dance was given further impetus in New York in late 1909 with the touring vaudeville show called The Queen of the Moulin Rouge. Here there were depictions of two famous Parisian cabarets – the Moulin Rouge and Rat Mort – and the Apache dance, described as not being salacious but artistic and depicting fierce and vital emotions, was once again given by Smith and Alexander.
There was a flurry of other dancing duos performing the dance but when Maurice and his new partner Madelaine D’Harville arrived in New York in late October 1911 his rendition of the Apache at Louis Martin’s Cafe de L’Opera eclipsed all others and became a huge success.
A few years later a 10-part 7-hour silent film called Les Vampires was released (1915) about an Apache gang that contained a number of Apache dance sequences performed by real street Apache dancers. A year later Maurice Mouvet and his wife Florence Walton were starred in the Famous Players Lasky film The Quest For Life (1916) that featured their Apache dance.
The Apache continued to be hugely popular throughout the 1920s and in early 1927 for example, Julian Wylie staged a musical play called the Apache at the Palladium Theatre, London. The star, Carl Brisson, played a dare-devil Apache of noble birth who seeks revenge on the man who wronged his family and featured some wonderful Apache dances with his sister Tilly. At the same time Ivor Novello’s The Rat at the Prince of Wales theatre, described as ‘The Story of an Apache’ followed the same kind of pattern and was later made into a successful film.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, Sydney Mail, the Daily Mail, Variety, Dancing Times, The Tatler, Picture Show
Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance by Julie Maling
Stepping Out by Lewis A. Erenberg (New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930
Richard Powers blog ‘The Hidden story of the Apache dance’