A performative, competitive dance known as the chalk line walk first appeared around the 1850s on the plantations along the Gulf Coast. Its origins lay in the African-derived dance known as the bamboula — also the name of a drum — and it was performed in New Orleans, where on Sundays slaves were allowed to congregate. In their limited freedom, they not only danced the bamboula but also dances like the pile, chactas and the carabine in Congo Square and at their masters’ homes. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a local creole composer was inspired by the dances and wrote “Bamboula, dance des nègres, Op.2” in 1848. By the 1850s, the bamboula’s popularity had spread to Florida, where it possibly mixed with the dance traditions of the Seminole. It eventually developed into the cakewalk, which quickly became popular throughout the Gulf Coast.
Whereas the minstrelsy craze of the 1840s-1860s was the first major cross-racial American musical exchange, cakewalk’s heyday from the 1850s-1890s was probably the second and, importantly, a reversal. Minstrelsy was a product of white musicians seeking to simultaneously imitate and mock black customs, but cakewalks were initially produced by black performers imitating and mocking whites. Thus began a long history of back and forth musical and cultural dialogues that have been behind nearly every significant innovation in American music.
The cakewalk was initially a sort of whiteface satire of the slaves’ owners and involved mocking their customs with participants adopting the exaggerated postures witnessed in the courtship rituals of their toff masters, making it sort of a reverse minstrelsy. Participants doffed hates, bowed exaggeratedly, puffed out their chests, high stepped and twirled their canes alternating with expressive and more obviously acrobatic moves. The performance judged best earned the winners a cake or other prize. The accompanying music, also known as cakewalk, combined the polyrhythmic character of West African music with the various European-derived forms played by brass dance bands. The result was a syncopated music with a swinging rhythm that led to the development first of ragtime and ultimately of jazz.
For their curious white masters, the cakewalk could be co-opted in a simultaneous mocking and expression of fascination with black practices, almost as with minstrelsy, then in decline. The first published cakewalk was Rollin Howard‘s 1871 hit, “Good Enough!” In 1876, cakewalk was demonstrated at the Centennial of the American Independence. Harrigan and Hart‘s 1877 jam, “Walking For Dat Cake,” followed and the popularity of the music and dance quickly spread. Initially, as with all expressions of minstrelsy, the cakewalks would regularly close blackface medicine shows, helping white audiences overcome their fears of blacks by reducing the recently-freed and no doubt ex-slave-owner-hating blacks to cartoonish images of harmless buffoons who loved life as slaves. At the same time, it cautiously opened the door for black musicians and their music, furthering the great cultural dialogue at the center of American art.
Over time, as with most appropriations of black American culture, the watered-down version was soon judged to be impure and white audiences began to pursue the authentic black expression. Beginning in 1892, The National Cakewalk Jubilee was held annually, going from 11:00 p.m. till 5:00 a.m. the next morning.
In 1893, the famed duo of monocle-wearing Charles Johnson and Dora Dean (Johnson and Dean) were a celebrity cakewalk duo and featured attraction at the Chicago World Fair. Famed black entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker incorporated cakewalk into their routine and played for forty consecutive weeks at Koster & Bial’s and appeared in advertisements for Philip-Morris.
Caricatures of cakewalk stars were soon collected and traded like baseball or Pokemon cards today (assuming kids still do that). As evinced by the sheet music, caricatures of cakewalkers could be cartoonish and grotesque, but nowhere near as much as coon songs, the spiritual offspring of minstrelsy. In many cases, the images didn’t seek to mock their subjects at all. As the popularity of cakewalk spread, it became accepted amongst high society, whose members used the popularity and subsequent semi-respectability as an opportunity to unleash their otherwise carefully repressed libidos.
Although John Philip Sousa disliked cakewalk, his Missouri-born trombonist Arthur Pryor often arranged them and Sousa relented in the face of public demand. Sousa’s band performed cakewalk at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, and a veritable cakewalk craze was instigated in Europe. Not long afterward, Pryor left Sousa’s band to start his own, explaining, “The regulation bands never got over being a little embarrassed at syncopating. The stiff-backed old fellows felt it was beneath their dignity and they couldn’t or wouldn’t give into it.”
Soon after, the most famous cakewalkers toured England, France, and Germany, where even Kaiser Wilhelm shook a tailfeather. In Europe, the cakewalking teams were highly paid celebrities and their exploits were covered in newspapers that had previously banned depictions of blacks. In 1903, Edward VII requested cakewalk lessons for the British royal family. By 1905, the peak of cakewalk’s popularity had largely passed.
In 1913, Claude Debussy published “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.” In 1915 there was a bit of a revival and cakewalk was increasingly viewed nostalgically. However, the revival proved to be short-lived and by the latter part of the decade, the popularity of cakewalk had truly declined and far fewer examples were published. To a large extent, the cakewalk dance had transformed into the Charleston and Jazz had begun to completely supplant cakewalk and ragtime music’s position as the new, popular black American music.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if cakewalk’s legacy continued with the rise of ball culture in Harlem‘s black gay underground. Similar to cakewalking, in the ballroom community, participants dance and compete in performative “drag” categories which carried on the tradition of exposing and skewering not just the racial and social class system but gender and sexuality. In “Spectacles of Colors, Missouri author Langston Hughes wrote about a drag ball he attended in Harlem in the 1920s and it sounds very much like a “New Negro” update on the old southern Cakewalk.