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The Cakewalk dance was developed from a "Prize Walk" done in the days of slavery, generally at get-togethers on plantations in the Southern United States
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

. Alternative names for the original form of the dance were "chalkline-walk", and the "walk-around". At the conclusion of a performance of the original form of the dance in an exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition
Centennial Exposition
The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World's Fair in the United States, was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from May 10 to November 10, 1876, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. It was officially...

 in Philadelphia, an enormous cake was awarded to the winning couple. Thereafter it was performed in minstrel shows, exclusively by men until the 1890s. The inclusion of women in the cast "made possible all sorts of improvisations in the Walk, and the original was soon changed into a grotesque dance" which became very popular across the country.

As a plantation dance

The authors of Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance reported that an early 1950s experiment with African guests turned up "no worthy African counterpart" to the Cakewalk. While folklorist Harold Courlander reported that he had seen "certain passages" which were "virtually indistinguishable" from the Cakewalk in South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, Brook Baldwin nevertheless wrote in 1981 that "Researchers have not yet pinpointed the origin of the cakewalk." One theory holds that the cakewalk originated as a parody of the formal ballroom dancing preferred of white slave owners, including satirical exaggerations of European dance moves.

First person accounts

In the 1981 article "The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality" Brooke Baldwin cites "an almost exhaustive compilation of those accounts which have been found so far". This compilation consists of eyewitness accounts by ex-slaves from Virginia and Georgia recorded by WPA
Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unskilled workers to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects...

 researchers in the 1930s, along with second hand accounts from other sources. Baldwin notes that "when the researchers of the Federal Writer's Project of the WPA interviewed aged ex-slaves in the 1930s, there was no longer any need to suppress information about the happier moments of slave life."

Louise Jones: "de music, de fiddle
The term fiddle may refer to any bowed string musical instrument, most often the violin. It is also a colloquial term for the instrument used by players in all genres, including classical music...

s an' de banjo
In the 1830s Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo on stage. His version of the instrument replaced the gourd with a drum-like sound box and included four full-length strings alongside a short fifth-string. There is no proof, however, that Sweeney invented either innovation. This new...

s, de Jews harp, an' all dem other things. Sech dancin' you never seen before. Slaves would set de flo' in turns, an' do de cakewalk mos' all night."

Georgia Baker said that she sang a song when she was a child. "Walk light ladies, De cake's all dough" She laughed and added, "Us didn't know it when we was singin' dat tune to us chillun dat when us growed up us would be cakewalkin' to de same song".

Estella Jones: "Cakewalkin' was a lot of fun durin' slavery time. Dey swep yards real clearn and set benches for de party. Banjos wuz used for music makin'. De women's wor long, ruffled dresses wid hoops in 'em and de mens had on high hats, long split-tailed coasts, and some of em used walkin' sticks. De couple dat danced best got a prize. Sometimes de slave owners come to dese parties 'cause dey enjoyed watchin' de dance, and dey 'cided who danced de best. Most parties durin' slavery time, wuz give on Saturday night durin' work sessions, but durin' winter dey wuz give on most any night."

Second hand, oral tradition accounts

A South Carolinian told of Griffin, a fiddler who played for the dances of the whites as well as for the "annual cakewalks of his own people".

A story told to him by his childhood nanny in 1901 was repeated by 80 year old actor Leigh Whipple, "Us slave 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."

Ex-ragtime entertainer Shepard Edmonds told in 1950 of memories related to him by his parents from Tennessee; "...the cake walk was originally a plantation dance, just a happy movement they did to the banjo music because they couldn't stand still. It was generally on Sundays, when there was little work, that the slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around. They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the "big house", but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It's supposed to be that the custom of a prize started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement."

Baldwin concludes that the Cakewalk was meant "to satirize the competing culture of supposedly 'superior' whites. Slaveholders were able to dismiss its threat in their own minds by considering it as a simple performance which existed for their own pleasure" (p. 211).

Written accounts by Tom Fletcher first published in 1954, were not addressed in the Baldwin article. Fletcher, who was born in 1873 and had a show business career beginning in 1888, wrote that when he was a child, his grandparents told him about the chalk-line walk/cakewalk, but they did not know when it started.

Fletcher's grandfather told him, "your grandmother and I, we won all the prizes and were taken from plantation to plantation. The dance became a great fad. It took skill and good nerves...The plantation is where shows like yours first started, son."

Fletcher adds that " The cake walk, in that section and 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."

Fletcher also wrote, in another chapter of his book, that, "The old "chalk-line walk was revived with fancy steps by Charlie Johnson a clever eccentric dancer... The "chalk-line walk" then became known as the "Cake Walk."

"Cakewalk King" Charles E. Johnson related his grandmother's recollections of a dance-walk from "the old days". White folks from the big house carriaged down to watch their slaves couple off and do a dance-walk that was as elegant and poised as a Mozart minuet, but was flavored with an exaggerated grace that was sometimes comical. The cadenced walking and high stepping was usually supplied by a violin, a drum and a horn of some kind. A towering, extra sweet coconut cake was the prize for the winning couple. The cakewalk was still popular at the dances of ordinary folks after the Civil War.

Another theory

Ethel L. Urlin writing in the 1912 "Dancing, Ancient and Modern" stated that the cakewalk "originated in Florida, where it is said that the Negroes borrowed the idea of it from the war dances of the Seminole...The negroes were present as spectators at these dances, which consisted of wild and hilarious jumping and gyrating, alternating
with slow processions in which the dancers walked solemnly in couples. The idea grew, and style in walking came to be practised among the negroes as an art."

The "Encyclopedia of Social Dance" echoed the Seminole Indian connection, stating that "Classes sprang up among the negroes for the teaching of the dance and the proper way to promenade" in the 1880s. As Florida developed into a winter resort, the dance became more performance oriented, and spread to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and finally New York.

Cakewalk in minstrelsy, musicals, and as a popular dance

An exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial featured blacks singing folk songs and doing an old dance called the "chalk-line walk" in a plantation like setting.
The dance was "done in the original fashion", as described by Fletcher.
In 1877 performer-showmen Ernest Hogan and Edward Harrigan produced "Walking for Dat Cake, An Exquisite Picture of Negro Life and Customs" as a feature sketch at New York's Theater Comique on lower Broadway.
Thereafter it was performed in minstrel shows, exclusively by men until the 1890s.
In the 1893 production of "The Creole Show", which had opened in 1889, Dora Dean and her husband Charles E. Johnson made a hit dancing the cakewalk, their speciality, as partners. During its run from 1889 through 1897, this show played to crowds in Boston and New York at the old Standard Theatre on Greeley Square, one of the first productions to discard blackface makeup. The production had a Negro cast with a chorus line of sixteen girls, and at a time when women on stage, and partner dancing on stage were something new. The inclusion of women in the cast "made possible all sorts of improvisations in the Walk, and the original was soon changed into a grotesque dance" which became very popular across the country.

A Grand Cakewalk was held in Madison Square Garden, the largest commercial venue in New York City, on February 17, 1892.

The Illustrated London News carried a report of a barn dance in Ashtabula, Ohio in 1897 and written by an English woman traveller. "The origin of that expression "taking the cake", had previously been an enigma to me, if I had ever thought about it before, but it was suddenly in an unexpected and most practical way (revealed to me)." Just before the ball was declared finished a long procession of couples was formed who walked in their very best manner around the room three times before the criticizing eyes of a dozen old people, who selected the best turned-out pair, and gravely presented them with a large plum cake.

In July 1898 the musical comedy "Clorindy The Origin of the Cakewalk" opened on Broadway in New York. Will Marion Cook
Will Marion Cook
William Mercer Cook , better known as Will Marion Cook, was an African American composer and violinist from the United States. Cook was a student of Antonín Dvořák and performed for King George V among others...

 wrote ragtime music for the show. Black dancers mingled with white cast members for the first instance of integration on stage in New York. Cook wrote, "My chorus sang like Russians, dancing meanwhile like Negroes, and cakewalking like angels, black angels! When the last note was sounded, the audience stood and cheered for at least ten minutes. This was the finale which Witmark had said no one would listen to. It was pandemonium... But did that audience take offense at my rags and lack of conducting polish? Not so you could notice it!"

"Dusky troopers march & cake walk" was written by Will Hardy and published in 1900.
Sheet music covers for more cake walks can be viewed here.

Scott Joplin mentioned the cake walk in his folk ballet "The Ragtime Dance
The Ragtime Dance
"The Ragtime Dance" is a piece of ragtime music by Scott Joplin, first published in 1902.-Publication history:Although the piece was performed in Sedalia, Missouri on November 24, 1899, it wasn't published until 1902. John Stillwell Stark had announced the publication of "The Ragtime Dance" in...

", published in 1902.
"Let me see you do the rag-time dance,
Turn left and do the cakewalk prance,
Turn the other way and do the slow drag
Slow drag (dance)
The Slow drag is an American social dance originally performed to ragtime music, and has been resurrected as part of blues dancing.-History:Ragtime composers, including Scott Joplin, wrote a number of slow-tempo tunes appropriate for the dance...

Now take you lady to the World's Fair
And do the rag-time dance."

Performances of the "Cake Walk", including a "Comedy Cake Walk" were filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, was a motion picture company founded in 1895 and active until 1928. It was the first company in the United States devoted entirely to film production and exhibition, and for two decades was one of the most prolific, releasing over three thousand short...

 in 1903. Prancing steps were the main steps shown in the "Cake Walk" segment, which featured two couples, and a solo dancer. All dancers were African American.
1903 was the same year that both the cakewalk and ragtime music arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Leaning far forward or far backward is associated with defiance in Kongo. "We are palm trees, bent forward, bent back, but we never break." Another interpretations of these motions were "melting" to the beat, or protecting what is new (leaning forward) with the past (leaning back). The appearance of the cakewalk in Buenos Aires may have influenced influenced early styles of tango.

"Cakewalk King" Charles E. Johnson, who, with his wife Dora Jean, achieved fame cakewalking throughout the United States and Europe described his kind of dance as "simple, digified and well-dressed".

The Cake Walk was more fluid and imaginative than the established two-step, it was nevertheless a regularized form, more improvisational than its previous form, but highly formalized compared to later dances such as the Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop.

Cakewalk as a musical form

Most cakewalk music is notated in 2/4 time signature
Time signature
The time signature is a notational convention used in Western musical notation to specify how many beats are in each measure and which note value constitutes one beat....

 with two alternate heavy beats per bar, giving it an ooompah rhythm. The music was adopted into the works of various white composers, including Robert Russell Bennett
Robert Russell Bennett
Robert Russell Bennett was an American composer and arranger, best known for his orchestration of many well-known Broadway and Hollywood musicals by other composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. In 1957 and 2008, Bennett received Tony Awards...

, John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, known particularly for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition, he is known as "The March King" or the "American March King" due to his British counterpart Kenneth J....

, and Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Claude-Achille Debussy was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, though he himself intensely disliked the term when applied to his compositions...

. Debussy wrote "Golliwogg
The "Golliwogg" was a character in children's books in the late 19th century and depicted as a type of rag doll. It was reproduced, both by commercial and hobby toy-makers as a children's toy called the "golliwog", and had great popularity in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and...

's Cakewalk" as the final movement of his Children's Corner
Children's Corner
Children's Corner is a six-movement suite for solo piano by Claude Debussy. It was published by Durand in 1908, and was given its world première in Paris by Harold Bauer on December 18 of that year...

suite (1908).
The Cake Walk was an adapted and amended two-step, which had been spawned by the popularity of marches, most notably by John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, known particularly for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition, he is known as "The March King" or the "American March King" due to his British counterpart Kenneth J....


Cakewalk music incorporated syncopation
In music, syncopation includes a variety of rhythms which are in some way unexpected in that they deviate from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong and weak but also powerful beats in a meter . These include a stress on a normally unstressed beat or a rest where one would normally be...

 and a habanera
Habanera (music)
The habanera is a genre of Cuban popular dance music of the 19th century. It is a creolized form which developed from the contradanza. It has a characteristic "Habanera rhythm", and is performed with sung lyrics...

-like rhythm into the regular march rhythm
March (music)
A march, as a musical genre, is a piece of music with a strong regular rhythm which in origin was expressly written for marching to and most frequently performed by a military band. In mood, marches range from the moving death march in Wagner's Götterdämmerung to the brisk military marches of John...

. This syncopation was "an idiomatic corruption, a flattened-out mutation of what was once the true polyrhythmic character of African music".

"Cakewalk music" employed polyrhythm
Polyrhythm is the simultaneous sounding of two or more independent rhythms.Polyrhythm in general is a nonspecific term for the simultaneous occurrence of two or more conflicting rhythms, of which cross-rhythm is a specific and definable subset.—Novotney Polyrhythms can be distinguished from...



Born in 1871 James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson was an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist. Johnson is remembered best for his leadership within the NAACP, as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and...

 observed a cakewalk at a ball.

Modern times

The term "cakewalk" is often used to indicate something that is very easy or effortless. Though the dance itself could be physically demanding, it was generally considered a fun, recreational pastime. The phrase "takes the cake" also comes from this practice.

Along the lines of this "easy or effortless" meaning, there is the modern Cakewalk (carnival game)
Cakewalk (carnival game)
Cakewalk is a game played at carnivals, funfairs, and fundraising events. It is similar to a raffle and musical chairs. It was supposedly invented by the Revd Lewis Daly after the scales broke for the "guess the weight of the pie" game at the St Margaret's Church annual fete of 1869 in King's...

 which requires no skill at all to win.

One version of the cakewalk is sometimes taught, performed included in competitions within the Highland Dance community, especially in the southern United States.
In addition to the Highland Dance community, a version of the cakewalk seen in vintage film clips from the early 1900s is kept alive in the Lindy Hop
Lindy Hop
The Lindy Hop is an American social dance, from the swing dance family. It evolved in Harlem, New York City in the 1920s and '30s and originally evolved with the jazz music of that time. Lindy was a fusion of many dances that preceded it or were popular during its development but is mainly based...

 community through performances by the Harlem Hot Shots and through cakewalk classes held in conjunction with Lindy Hop classes and workshops.

Christian Bale demonstrated a cakewalk in the movie The Fighter. He can be seen walking with a 2/4 time as he carried his literal 'cake' as his prize. Said cake's icing can later be seen on Bale's arm and shirt.

External links