Cake Walk

by

reprinted with permission from The Ragtime Ephemeralist (http://home.earthlink.net/~ephemeralist):

It has been suggested many times that the cake walk was an imitation of white plantation masters’ refined dances by their black slaves, either originating as, or developing into, a parody of the affectations of european high culture. Such a hypothesis certainly has some corroborating evidence; Robert Anderson, a slave who was born in Green County Kentucky in 1848, recalled an incident when the master’s family had left the plantation and so they “had a regular jubilee which lasted the greater part of the night. We danced the dances like the white folks danced them, and then danced our own kind of dances.”

Slave dances were generally held around the end of the harvest season, and there seem to have been two events about which slaves were permitted “celebration”: Christmas, and the so-called “corn-shucking.” The first celebration was of a fixed date, the second, changeable, and sometimes held more than once a year, depending on the individual “culture” of the plantation; the harvested corn would be gathered and piled extraordinarily high (“as high as a house” in many descriptions) and the plantation’s slaves as well as slaves from the surrounding area plantations would gather to shuck the corn. Sometimes the shucking would last long into the night, and on other plantations it would be over by dawn, the remainder of the evening spent dancing.

“Some of the masters would even go to town and buy music and, when the weather was okay, would let those slaves who wished come and stand outside the open windows of the house to listen. In that way they would catch on to the words and the tunes. Then, when company came to the big house, the master would send word down to the slave quarters for them to sing. The company would sit out on the verandah of the big house listening and, with the wind in the right direction, sweet and original harmony would be carried to their ears.

Sometimes, on pleasant evenings, boards would be laid down for an impromptu stage before the verandah so the guests could have a good view of the proceedings and a real shindig would take place with singing and dancing. The “cake walk” … at that time, was known as the “chalk line walk”. There was no prancing, just a straight walk on a path made by turns and so forth, along which the dancers made their way with a pail of water on their heads. The couple that was the most erect and spilled the least water or no water at all was the winner.”

The cake walk, perhaps due its origins as a burlesque dance done for the entertainment of white plantation owners, eventually became a part of the minstrel show, and a number of Afro-American performers were to capitalize on its popularity in the late nineteenth century, some couples like Charles Johnson and Dora Dean reinventing the dance as one of great grace and beauty. It was one of the few ways in which Black perfomers could find some measure of dignity in the theatrical world, and it was one of the means through which the public began to hear the new music being referred to as “rag time.”

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