The Bal de La Montagne Sainte-Genevieve, Paris 1963

Danse Apache postcards by Alice Huertas

Hi! I’m D’yan and I’m 82. I like to put it out there, right away, in case I don’t make it through the story. I grew up in Boston and after college I married a nice Jewish boy named Irwin Cohen. Irwin didn’t turn out to be a great husband. He didn’t know how to please a woman. Normally that wouldn’t matter but the woman he needed to please was me!

D'yan in 1963
D’yan in 1963

We divorced in 1963 and I went to Paris to find out about life: I studied singing at the École de musique, took pantomime with Jacques Le Coq, and dated a lot of men. Excited to see the world I’d been missing, I spent evenings going to cabarets and nightclubs. After visiting the Casino de Paris and Folies Bergère a few times, I was sick of tourist cabarets. I wanted to go where the real Parisians went.

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I mentioned my interest in authentic Parisian clubs to a gentleman who said that he knew a great place which had been popular since the 1920s, and boasted an unusual clientele and entertainment lineup. Eagerly I suggested we go the next night. He responded, “Oh no, they only have this ‘dance-cabaret’ on Saturday nights.” As it turned out, this would be the only night I would see the dance-cabaret.

Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve ca. 1960 when D'yan was there. Image: Robert Doisneau
Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve ca. 1960 when D’yan was there. Image: Robert Doisneau

That Saturday, he whisked me away to the Le Bal de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, a dance hall from another era on a hill above the Sorbonne. Inside, a crowd of women (lesbians) moved together across the dance floor. The beauty of it all was astounding—such passion, such grace! It was like a scene from the Roaring Twenties: everyone dressed in their finest, fur to fringe, a big band on stage, the floor mobbed and throbbing with dancers, men, women, and more women. I was flabbergasted! This was not the shabby rock ‘n’ roll wiggling and bopping of Boston. Here there were waltzes, foxtrots, rumbas, java, and tangos.

Awed, I watched with my date, and we even had a dance together. At midnight, the mistress of ceremonies announced, “Maintenant, nous allons avoir une spectacle magnifigue, une merveilleux show!” Immediately I was disappointed. I came here to see beautiful women dancing, not a show!

We all sat down around the dance floor and two middle-age dancers, a man with a red beret and scarf, white shirt, black pants, and bolero jacket, and a woman in a short red skirt with a silky white top, strode onto the dance floor. They began dancing a magnificent tango. Then, things started to fall apart, right in the middle of their dance. They began to argue.  He became a little violent, then more violent, clutching hold of her skirt and hair, throwing her about the floor, over and over and again. He dragged her around, flopped her over his shoulder, then dropped her on the floor. She grabbed his leg, pleading, crawled up his body, clung to his neck, and finally, at the very end of the dance… they kissed passionately.  La Danse Apache!” my date told me.  I’d never seen it before, haven’t seen it since, and have never been so moved.  It was the sexiest dance I’d ever seen and would ever see.

Apache-dancers-Chico-Diane-Mazzone-1I’ve researched it on the internet and have found snippets of it from old movies from the 30s and 40s on YouTube, but nothing more recent.  I think the world realized that this dance had too much S&M, misogyny, and abuse of women.  In fact, the dance was created in the early 20th century and is supposedly a reenactment of a fight between a gangster and a prostitute. The word “Apache” was slang for the “violent criminal underworld subculture” of the early 20th century! And believe it or not, dance historian Richard Powers says that the dance was about women making a statement of empowerment!

Years later, during my annual visit to Paris, I scoured the hill of Sainte-Geneviève, but couldn’t find the club. However, there in front of me, was an old post office. If only those walls could talk, they’d certainly regale us with tales of unusual balls, dances with hundreds of women, and La Danse Apache!

Other Danse Apache to watch: Buster Keaton (1930), and Alexis and Dorrano (1934)