The Apache Dance

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Picture a choreographed West Side Story Jets vs. Sharks rumble in late Belle Époque Paris and you have the Apache Dance.

Les Apaches were violent young gangsters with a sense of panache. Think of them in cap, neckerchief and a tight, striped shirt. They carried distinctive Apache revolvers that incorporated brass knuckles and a knife. Tactics included the coup du père François, where the victim encountered the gang, only to be garroted from behind while another rifled through the pockets. In 1902, reporter Aurthur Dupin proffered the headline “Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville.” While they pronounced it a-PASH, it reflected the belief in the savagery of the Native American tribe. As if fin de siècle French street thugs wouldn’t be racist!

They also inspired a dance that would remain a cabaret staple for decades. In 1908, dancers Maurice Mouvet and Max Dearly picked up a dance based on the Apache criminals in dive bars. It combined tango, waltz and stage combat. The man mocks beating the woman, picking her up, whirling her and throwing her around. Apparently actual Apache toughs would make a bit of extra cash by giving dance lessons to brave tourists.

Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, provided an example of the Apache Dance.

The dance remained as a cultural touchstone for years, appearing in places as diverse as I Love Lucy and The Fresh Prince. I’m convinced that the gang fight from A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Apache Dance.

If you’re looking for authentic fin de siècle punks, you don’t need to look further than Les Apaches. Don’t forget the dance, but wear some padding.

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