Dublin dancer exits lead role at Moulin Rouge for new career in law

After 11 years in Paris, Claudine Van Den Bergh Cooke has opted for a step change

After treading the boards of the world’s most famous cabaret for more than a decade, Claudine Van Den Bergh Cooke is putting a new feather in her cap. A lead dancer at the Moulin Rouge, the 31-year-old Dubliner will have her final curtain call at the Parisian institution on Sunday night, before flying the coop for a new career as a legal eagle.

“After 11 years, I’m feeling nostalgic,” she says. “But I’m also really excited. It’s going to be a big change. I’ve trained my whole life to be a dancer. But I’ve found a new passion. They may seem worlds apart but with both dancing and the law, the environment is fast-paced, it’s challenging and dynamic. You’re learning all the time, and you have to think on your feet. You have to be disciplined and diligent.”

The Sutton native has just completed a law degree with the Open University, and is set to begin an online LLM, or Master of Laws, at the UK-based BPP University. She also plans to sit the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination), the centralised exam for solicitors in England and Wales.

“I really enjoyed school. I was quite academic. But I had to dance, and that’s something you have to do early, like an athlete. A few years ago, I tried a law module, loved it, took another module, then decided to do the degree and qualify as a solicitor, specialising in corporate law. To do that, I need to take a step back here at the Moulin Rouge so that I can take a step forward there. I’ve been studying by day and working by night. It’s been a real balancing act.”


Having started dancing at the age of two, Claudine went to London at 15 to train full-time at the Rambert company, where she completed a BA Degree in Ballet and Contemporary Dance. After moving to Paris, she auditioned for the Moulin Rouge, starting out in the chorus line before making her way up through the ranks to become lead dancer.

“I worked very hard. I was eager to learn. As principal, you have to bring light and shade to different roles. You have to bring that personality, and really connect with the audience. I don’t know if that’s something that can be taught. I love performing. It’s part of who I am. When you go on stage, it’s an escape. It’s just you and the audience. If you’ve had a tough day, no matter what’s happened, the show must go on.”

Asked what she will miss most about her time at the Moulin Rouge, there’s no hesitation. “Oh, the costumes. The fabrics, the sequins, the rhinestones. The outfits are all assembled by hand. They’re beautiful. You feel amazing when you put them on, like a million dollars. We have 12 costume changes per show.”

Her mother, a Belgian-born ballet teacher, will be in the audience when Claudine takes her final bow. Her younger sister, Isabelle, who’s also a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, will be at her side on stage. “We always say all the girls and guys here are like family, that we have our family backstage. But I really do have my family backstage!”

For 26-year-old Isabelle, the moment is bittersweet. “I’m feeling a mix of emotions”, she says. “I’ll miss her terribly. But I’m so proud of her. She’s taught me so much along the way.”

Claudine has no immediate plans to return to Dublin and is looking forward to kicking up her heels and spending time with her Irish boyfriend and their two dogs, Whiskey and Guinness. “I love Paris, but I haven’t had much time to enjoy it. I work six days a week. When I’m not working, I’m studying. The Moulin Rouge is open 365 days a year. We don’t close.”

Despite the demanding schedule, thousands of professional dancers apply each year for a position at the cabaret. Auditions are held in Paris up to three times a year, and annually in London and Leeds, and as far afield as Canada and Australia.

Any advice for aspiring dancers? “Try to stand out, use your face, show your personality, make sure you have a good base in classical ballet. That’s the foundation. Get used to dancing in heels, work on your kicks and acrobatics for the can-can. You’ll have to get used to dancing with feathers, with plumes.”

Some of those feathers are strategically placed. Once considered risqué, female performers must feel comfortable with a degree of nudity. “It’s not burlesque”, says Claudine. “It’s a family show. It’s open to children over the age of six. A lot of the time you’re covered with jewels, or something elegant, none of it is out of context, or vulgar.”

As she prepares to exit stage left, her fellow dancers say whoever replaces Claudine as lead will have big shoes to fill. “She’s a legend, an icon,” says Canadian Laura Renstad. “She’s the star of the show, but she doesn’t act like a star. She’s the loveliest soul, inside and out. So humble, so nice, such good vibes.”