The Cakewalk

Black dancers perform the “Cakewalk” at the Pan Am Expo in Buffalo, New York, 1901.

The Cakewalk is an African American social and performance dance, derived from dances of corn-husking festivals. The Cakewalk was a traditional African American from of music and dance which emerged among southern slaves. Those who won the dancing contest would win a cake, from where the term is derived.1

Here’s where the history on the Cakewalk get’s a little fuzzy. Some sources say it began as a parody of the formal European dances of the white slave owners, but went on to become a popular attraction patronized by white landowners.2 Meanwhile other sources say “Black performers brought dances such as the cakewalk, the shimmy, and the Charleston to the American and European public, and in the process they challenged and redefined constructions of race, gender, and nationality.”3 Both very strong opinions on the same variety of music!

No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s; “New York Age” (New York, New York) • 05-03-1890 • Page 2

I stumbled across an article that was published in Rochester NY on April 29th (c. 1890) praising the African American community, but bashing the Cakewalk. The article praises the African American women of Rochester saying “that in no city of New York are the Afro-Americans more thrifty then our people here… Our ladies [the African American “ladies” of Rochester] are educated and refined”4 Is this statement biased? Absolutely! I still was intrigued because this is perspective we don’t read don’t find very often — especially in the 1890s. The article continues, “Of course, Rochester, like other cities, has a few Afro Americans who can not appreciate a notable gathering of their own race at a banquet or a state convention as will take place in this city May 22. They will not be seen at the banquet because there is no cakewalk on the program”4 Ouch… This statement detracts from the compliment made towards the African American women of Rochester earlier in this newspaper article. This article praises the culture of African American women, as long as their culture is now one that appreciates “notable” things such as “banquets” or a “state convention”. They praise African American women for adopting white European ideals of sophistication and anything else is seen as “less than”. Problematic? Incredibly. The article is titled “No Cakewalk on the Program for the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues”. The author creates a division among the African American women of Rochester NY. It personifies naturalization which in this case I would define as: we’ll allow you to become part of our society, only if you become like “us” ( this “us” meaning white people). This author completely dismantles and discourages historically African American dances and ideals thus defining a superior and inferior culture.

Work Cited

1 Cakewalk. (2017). In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. Retrieved from link

2 Dancers, New York, 1901: Getty Images link

3 Griffin, F. J. (2009). Cake Walk, Shimmy, and Charleston. Women’s Review Of Books, 26(4), 12-13. link

4 New York Age. “No Cakewalk On The Program For the State Convention of Afro-American Leagues–A Haytian Lecturer’s”. News/Opinion; New York, New York 05/03/1890 link

Did they Walk the Walk? (The Cakewalk.)

The entry on Grove Music Online under “Cakewalk” describes an origin of the contest from slaves on plantations in the American South.  Claude Conyer, the author, explains how the dance became a “strutting parade” parodying the fancy manners of the white slaveholders.  In Conyer’s origin story, the first cakewalks happened around 1850 and inspired the popular comedic minstrel shows that were all the rage.  However, minstrel shows were popular earlier on, beginning in the 1820s and continuing with the Virginia Minstrels’ first show in 1843.

Which came first?  Did slaves dress to the nines in order to make fun of the overly glamorous plantation owners, therefore creating a political statement?  Or did minstrels originate the “Zip Coon” figure, dressed to the nines as a favorite stereotype?

Does it matter?

Conyer’s simple statement is an example of the entire history of minstrel song and the misappropriation of Black Americans in minstrelsy.  He goes on to describe how the dance was performed as a grand parade entrance, dancers wearing ridiculously fashionable attire and exaggerating every gesture.  The accompanying music to the cakewalk often contained characteristics of early ragtime:  syncopated rhythms and leaping bass lines.  One example of a two-step or cakewalk piece is Kerry Mills’ “At a Georgia Camp Meeting,” composed in 1897.

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1st Verse

A camp meeting took place,

by the colored race;

Way down in Georgia

There were coons large and small,

lanky lean fat and tall,

At this great coon camp-meeting.

Chorus

When that band of darkies began to play

Pretty music so gay hats were then thrown away

Thought them foolish coons their necks would break

When they quit laughing and talking

And went to walking, for a big choc’late cake.

The lyrics to this piece describe a culture without substance, intelligence, or more than base desires.  Every person at the gathering is labeled as a “coon,” and the “foolish coons” walk a cakewalk because no desire could be greater than a chocolate cake.

Although Sterns in Jazz Dance explains that “Negro specialists…everywhere were much in demand” (Stearns 42), it is obvious that even those attending cakewalks were only looking for material to be used as commercial gain.  The endearingly simple “coon” sold seats and gained laughter and applause.  But now the history of minstrelsy, more well-preserved than the history of Black culture, corrupts what we actually attribute to Black Americans.


Now that takes the cake.

 

Sources

Claude Conyers. “Cakewalk.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 14, 2015http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2092374.

Stearns, Marshall and Jean.  Jazz Dance : The Story of American Vernacular Dance.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

“At a Georgia Camp Meeting.” Kerry Mills. :: Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/fa-spnc/id/14135/show/14129/rec/4>.