Before 1910, ballroom dances were usually held at private residences, at formal “by invitation only” state balls, or at country clubs or other social venues. Upon arriving, guests were given a ”dance proggam" that consisted of the evening’s dances in the order that they were to be played by the live musical group. A dance program usually looked something like this:
State Ball—Three quadrilles, three polkas, fifteen waltzes, and a final galop Smart Private Dance—Sixteen waltzes and four two-steps Country Ball—Fifteen waltzes, two lancers, and three two-steps Dance Club—Sixteen waltzes and four one-steps
Of course these ballroom dances were attended by whites only, with the exception of black servants, and most of the dances were danced apart from each other or at arms-length. For over 100 years these types of dance programs were the main staple of any ballroom dance, and other than the new exciting music of Waltz composer Johann Strauss II during the late 1800’s, nothing much changed as far as the ballroom dance scene in Europe and America. American dancers got most of their ideas and material from imported European dances. Needless to say, by the 1890’s the ballroom scene was quite stale and ready for a change.
Underneath the many layers of multi-cultural American society, the African-American culture was developing quietly and quickly after the Civil War. African culture, with its own style of dance, slowly began to emerge with its own identity during the late 1800’s, especially in the South. The intense concerns that white culture voiced about this new and different dance culture can easily be seen in late nineteenth century anti-black/dance/music literature.
African-derived dance included hip and pelvis movements, stomping of the feet to replicate drums, shaking of the entire body, and other sorts of behaviors that were completely unfamiliar to white culture. Virtually all outlets for dancing were off-limits to blacks in many areas, especially outside of New Orleans, which simply propelled the popularity and effectiveness of the southern “juke-joint,” the incubators of black music and dance that changed the world of ballroom dancing in the early decades of the 1900’s. The juke-joints were places where black musicians and dancers could drink, enjoy their music, and congregate without being bothered by whites.
One of the first dances to cross over the line between blacks and whites was the “Cakewalk,” a dance developed by blacks as a kind of satire and comedy act that mimicked the behaviors that whites displayed during their Minuets and Waltzes. In 1901, a former slave told the actor Leigh Whipper:
Us slaves watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we’d do it too, but we used to mock ‘em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better (Malone 18).
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 musicans seeking to simultaneuosly 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 exagerated 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 polyrhthmic 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.
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.
The Cakewalk ended up on stage in the popular Vaudeville shows that traveled the country in the late 1800’s. Smartly dressed couples paraded the stage, leaning back and stepping high to Ragtime tunes. Off-stage, Cakewalk competitions became popular amongst whites and blacks across America, and the idea of the prize being a highly decorated cake became the popular tradition. The couple who had the most creative dance moves and who looked the best on the floor won the cake, hence the phrase “take the cake.” By 1900, the dance had become so popular that a black musical was produced called “Clorindy,” which was also known as “The Origin of the Cakewalk”(1898).
In 1893, the famed duo of Johnson and Dean were a featured attraction at the Chicago World Fair. The monacle-wearing Charles Johnson and his partner Dora Dean were another celebrity cakewalk duo. 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.
Soon after, the most famous cakewalkers toured England, Franceand Germany, where even Kaiser Wilhem shook a tailfeather. In Europe, the cakewalking teams were highly paid celebrities and their exploits were covered in newspapers which 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.
While Paris had been the central locality for the development of the world’s fine arts for centuries, and the place where unruly social dance crazes became refined artistic forms of acceptable social dance (such as the Tango), the new American vaudeville and musical performances gave Americans a say-so in what what was socially acceptable in the ballroom and what was not.
The professional musical became a useful method in which un-tamed fad dances were developed into artistic forms of social dance. From this point forward, dances that made it to the stage of a professional production were deemed as socially acceptable, and America led the way to a new type of ballroom dancing. Dances went from being imported to American from Europe to the other way around during the early 1900’s. Exhibition ballroom teams who were able to perform social fad dances using the mannerisms of the elite white society while also incorporating the rules of traditional ballet became the sweethearts of the ballrooms and easily found high-paying employment in theatres and caberets, especially in New York City.
By 1915, the cakewalk dance had transformed into the Charleston and Ragtime became the new, popular American music. But for a country that was divided by separation of race, the cakewalk closed the gap, if only briefly, through the universal language of dance.
Video of Cakewalks
Patsy Holden has been a professional ballroom dancer for 20 years, serving 18 years in Orlando. She has a Master in Anthropology, a Bachelor in Humanities, and studies the growing popularity of ballroom dancing.
Driver, Ian. A Century of Dance: A hundred years of musical movement, from Waltz to hip-hop. Octopus Publishing Group Limited, 2000.
Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.