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5 min read | Written by Ellis Coopey


Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a spot of twerking, soca and lip-synching, would it? Well, it *is* Contact, after all.

We’re all looking forward to the Slay Bells Christmas Cabaret on Friday 13th December (tickets still available) so here’s a short history of cabaret to get you in the mood. ‘Tis the season…

Black Cats and Bohemians

What does the word ‘cabaret’ mean? It’s a French word (but, of course!) …and it means cabaret or spectacle.

In a nutshell, it was an event where people sat at tables and drank alcoholic beverages while being entertained by a variety show on stage, led by a Master of Ceremonies (MC)

Cabaret as we know it today started at Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), a nightblub in the bohemian district of Paris called Montmartre. You may not have heard of it before, but you’ll likely have seen the famous artwork.

Cabaret in Pop Culture

Cabaret wasn’t just for Parisians.

Life is a cabaret, old chum. (See what I did there?) Liza Minelli’s number ‘Come to the Cabaret’ from the 1966 musical film is one of the most famous cabaret references in pop culture. Only ‘Mein Herr’ is more iconic, recognise the scene?

In slightly more recent history, cabaret was the setting for the final instalment of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy. The 2001 film, Moulin Rouge!, is a juke-box musical starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as star-crossed lovers. He’s a writer, Christian, and she’s a cabaret performer, Satine “the sparkling diamond”. Their bohemian romance is forbidden, as she is torn between being wed to a wealthy Duke and the true love she feels for Christian. The drama unfolds around Paris’ biggest bohemian district Montmartre, and its largest nightclub. Yes, you guessed it, the Moulin Rouge (Red Mill)

The Cabaret Revolution

Love was not the only thing forbidden. Cabaret grew up in time defined by social and racial segregation. Cabaret quickly became the meeting place for all backgrounds, and so became entwined with politics, rebellion, freedom of expression and freedom of love. These bohemians had strong anti-establishment political and social viewpoints, often expressed through which often were expressed through free love and frugality. This way of thinking and living wasn’t limited to certain economic backgrounds.  The wealthy had their own bohemian circles, often referred to as haute bohème (literally, high bohemia)

Overturning now dated Victorian values was high on the agenda, and even the church was dragged in. Check out Montmartre’s lesser-known Cabaret de L’Enfer (The Cabaret of Hell), which stood next-door to Cabaret du Ciel (The Cabaret of Heaven). Do you think such a blatant parody of Christianity and the church establishment would have existed a few decades before?

At the same time, the popular entertainment business was growing. Another event that grew-up at around the same time as cabaret was the masked ball (or masquerade ball).

Whereas attending the opera or seeing an orchestra, were often reserved for the upper classes, the masked ball allowed people from all walks of life to attend. If they wore a mask, who would know what parts of society they were from? This captured everyone’s imagination (it still does right?), the rebellious intermingling of classes. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, the song ‘Masquerade’ hints at this social tension with the lyrics:

“Masquerade! Paper faces on parade
Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you!”

Officials didn’t like it and these balls were often raided by police, finally leading to the demolition of many of these districts to build the modern-day Paris boulevards. These wide streets are a must-see tourist attraction today but have a rather sinister origin. The streets were made to be wide, straight and long in order to provide a clear line of fire against potential revolutionaries.


Across the pond, in the US,  jazz music was becoming massively popular, and just like the masked ball, it was bringing the classes together. With jazz came dancing. Before then dancing had been a formal rigid affair but with jazz, it came unhinged.


Guess what? That’s what officials thought too, so Prohibition came in, followed by the Cabaret Law. In then 1926, New York City officials passed The Cabaret Law, which required businesses, seeking to allow dancing on their premises to obtain a license. According to the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection:

‘A Cabaret License is required for any business that sells food and / or beverages to the public and allows patron dancing in a room, place, or space’

These licenses were notoriously expensive and difficult to get (only 0.01% of bars and restaurants around the city have one), effectively making it illegal to dance in most food and drink establishments across the city.

The origins of this law are deeply prejudiced – originally set-up to target black jazz clubs – and over the years it has been selectively enforced to shut down venues frequented by marginalised groups. Yes, that’s right, they’d shut them down for dancing.

Cabaret really came unto its own in these illicit establishments. Prohibition and the Cabaret Law, only encouraged people from different races and social class to get closer – all seeking underground places that could serve them a drink and allowed them the freedom of expression. This is the true spirit of cabaret.

If you were in New York two years ago and let out an unrestrained shimmy in a restaurant or bar, then you’ve broken the law. Believe it or not, The Cabaret Law was only repealed in 2017. Perhaps the final triumph of the people was that it was repealed under Trump administration. Give all out folks!

Slay Bells – Christmas Cabaret

Friday 13th December, 7:30 pm
STUN Studio, Z Arts

Now we’ve been around the world with cabaret we’re bringing it home to Hulme. We’ve been celebrating queer art throughout the festive season and our Christmas Cabaret is the perfect way to see in yuletide with snow* and slay. 

*Snow is not guaranteed, slay most definitely is.

Book here