Ever since the 15th century, when the first dance manuals appeared to teach Italian nobles how to dance “correctly” at court, dance masters have been telling their students what and how to dance: “do point your toes,” “don’t shake your shoulders,” “do pay attention to the music,” “don’t show off,” and on and on and on. . .

ASSOCIATIONS GALORE

By the end of the 19th century dancing in America was, in the eyes of some, in a sorry state. The intricate, European dances of mid-century–the polka, the mazurka and the waltz–were being slowly edged out by the simple twostep, a dance some referred to as the “idiot waltz,”  see sheet music cover, left. No one needed hours of study in a class led by a professional to romp the twostep. In 1879, alarmed at what they were seeing,  dance teachers from across the country formed the American Society of Professors of Dancing.  Four years later, in 1883, the National Association of Masters of Dancing was formed in Boston. In 1894 the International Masters of Dancing held their first convention in St. Louis and by 1905 there was a United Professional Teachers of Dancing.

Initially, the goals  of these associations were admirable. They aimed to standardize the steps that were taught across the country so that a dancer would be able to dance a waltz whether in Baltimore, Cincinnati or Boise. This tinkering with old steps inevitably led to trying their hand at choreographing “acceptable” new dances to introduce to the public.  The associations also wanted to clean up the vulgar sloppiness and slouching that had crept into ballroom dancing, right. In 1893, they deigned to view the performance of Little Egypt and her danse du ventre (bellydance) at the Chicago World’s Fair. They wrote:

“The style of movements practiced by those so called Algerian and other women is something too objectionable for people of refined taste to countenance. It is a depraved and immoral exhibition. It may well be styled an outrage to allow such an exhibition and rate it under the head of dance.”

After 1900, with the appearance of the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, the shimmy and finally the charleston, dance teachers found their work cut out for them. With the bewildered public not sure of what kind of dancing was acceptable and what was not, dancing masters  found themselves in a crucial new role.  If they couldn’t continue selling the profitable lessons necessary to learn the old fashioned complex ballroom dances any more, teachers discovered that what they could sell was good taste. Each season they would decree what dances were no longer fashionable, which new dances were totally unacceptable always promoting a few new dances that they themselves had devised. Newspaper articles from those years tell the story:

“Professors of Dancing Bring the Waltz to Near Perfection”

“Dance Masters Decree Hugging Must Go”

“Dancing Experts Try to Reform Their Art”

“Dance Masters Fight Jazz”

PHILADELPHIA ENTERS THE FRAY

Smaller organizations and chapters sprang up to combat problems on a local level. In 1893, the Philadelphia Association of Teachers of Dancing announced that they had enrolled nearly all the prominent dance teachers in the city. At their meetings during the summer, often held at the Jersey shore, they would announce what dances would be fit to grace Philadelphia ballrooms that fall season. In 1894, for instance, they introduced “The A l’Avenir,” “The Waltz Lancers,” and the “Chautaqua Square.” In 1914, they took it upon themselves to take on the newest dance, the foxtrot, and agreed to standardize five easy to learn figures. They dealt as decisively with the other ragtime dances that flooded ballrooms in the teens. They wrestled with  the hesitation, the maxixe, and the onestep, and reduced them all to scientific formulas. Philadelphia dance master S. Wallace Cortissoz demonstrates the “onestep maxixe” for the Inquirer, above, left. The Philadelphia Association was soon seen as a model organization for the rest of the country. As the 1915 photo, below, shows, it indeed comprised all the most eminent dance teachers in the city. Mr. Cortissoz is second from the left in the top row of the photo.


WERE THEY SUCCESSFUL?

It’s difficult to assess whether either the Philadelphia or the national associations realized many of their goals. They were making a valiant effort to take control of their field, all the while promoting themselves and their services.

Did they “clean up” the dances? Nagging couples about dancing too closely, or about hopping too much seemed all too much like simply taking the fun out of dancing. Teachers could demand strict posture and decorum in their classes, but monitoring what actually went on out in public was another story. Usually, the things they objected to were exactly what made new dances they tried to ban so appealing.

Did they standardize dances? When the tango was introduced about 1913, a dance master complained that he had read over 120 variations of tango steps! Certainly, reducing dances to a manageable number of steps and figures made them easier to teach; standardization had its good points. However, just the fact that there were multiple national dance associations shows that in a large country like the U.S.A., there would always be regional tastes, styles and differences. Standardization of dances was much more successful in a small country like England, where dance masters from all over that nation taught identical curricula. Their success at standardization is one of the main reasons that the English became the main force in international competetive ballroom dance  by the 1930s. It explains why competitors on Dancing with the Stars, a show created by the BBC,  do British jive and not American swing dance.

Did dance masters introduce new dances to the ballroom that caught on with the public? Hardly. It seems that dance associations were even less successful in selling their choreographies to the public than they were in banning dances they didn’t care for. At each convention, dance teachers would submit their own choreographies and the best new dance would be chosen by vote.  In 1915, the Philadelphia Dancing Masters created the “Philadelphia Six Step,” above, right, for which I would love to find music and directions. In 1920, they tried to replace the popular Shimmy with a dance they invented called the Radnor. In 1921, in a misguided attempt to appease anti-dance Methodists, the Dancing Masters named one of their new dances for the season “The Wesleyan.” The Methodist Conference was so insulted, they issued a statement calling the action of the Dancing Masters “an outrage against decency and an offense to every Methodist.” The Dancing Masters Association withdrew the dance. At best, the dances the associations created had limited popularity among their own students. The fact that we have never heard of the “Philadelphia Six Step,” or of the “Waltz Lancers,” “Radnor,” “Chautaqua Square,” or almost any other dance association creation for that matter, says a lot.

The tension between systemization and spontaneity, between doing what is correct and doing what is fun has, I think, led to the extreme dichotomy of social dancing today, where we have highly technical and stylized competitive ballroom dancing on one hand, and the uninhibited and unstructured but socially engaging dancing done at weddings, parties and bars in the real world on the other. On Dancing With the Stars, when the couple voted off go out on the floor and do a final, unrehearsed farewell dance, do they break into a foxtrot, a samba or a jive? No, they just rock back and forth, exactly like you or I do.

The Quaker City Takes the Cake

September 17, 2012

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       Throughout most of the 19th century, the dances that Americans did were the same ones being done in elegant European ballrooms; the waltz, the polka, the schottische and the quadrille. All that changed toward the end of the century, when the first American-born popular dance swept over the country, then the world. That dance was the cake walk.

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ORIGINS: WE MADE THE CEILING SHAKE

        Like most of the later dances that America would export to the rest of the world – think the charleston, the lindy hop and the twist – the cake walk was a distinctly African-American product. The cake walk’s exact origin was already more myth than fact by 1899, but it was probably born on southern plantations around the time of the Civil War.  During their Saturday night dances, slaves would exaggeratedly mock the stiff and prim way they had seen white people dancing. They strutted and pranced, using canes props and odd costumes. The dance thus held many layers of meaning. For slaves, it was a joyous realease as well as a veiled jab at white masters. For the same masters who looked on, the cake walk could be seen as an innocent amusement performed by slaves who “couldn’t dance any better.” The exaggeration and theatricality of the dance naturally led to competition, with a cake being offered as the prize for the best dancers.

       By the 1870s, the cake walk had travelled from the plantation to the minstrel stage. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 featured a romanticized recreation of  ante-bellum plantation life that included a cake walk contest. In 1877, vaudevillians Edward Harrigan and Dave Braham published “Walking for Dat Cake,” above, left, and launched a flood of cake walk compositions that introduced the dance to a broad range of audiences. Before long, expressions like “that takes the cake,” or “that was a cake walk” entered America’s everyday vocabulary.

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GRACE AND STYLE AT HORTICULTURAL HALL

        In February of 1892, the cake walk craze burst onto the scene with a huge “Cake walk Jubilee” held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, see a contemporary photo, “Cake walk Leaders,” above. Not to be outdone, that same month, Philadelphia planned its own “mammoth cake walk” to be held at Horticultural Hall on Broad Street, right. The lady who would take first prize would not only be awarded a cake, but an upright piano, while her partner would receive a gold watch. The second place couple would receive a plush coat for the lady and a silver watch for the gentlemen. The third place couple would be awarded a sewing machine and a silk top hat. The prizes were all on display at Blasius & Sons piano shop on Chestnut St. near 11th St. for a week before.

        On the night of the event, the huge hall was packed. The audience was mixed, with blacks outnumbered fifty to one by whites, and women outnumbered four to one by men. City Councilmen, Magistrates and the Fire Commissioner all attended. At 9 pm, the Washington Grays Band struck up a grand march and the “walkers” appeared, to thunderous applause. All eleven couples competing were, as the rules demanded,  African-American. After two preliminary cake walks, during which the contestants were judged by style, grace and execution, finalists were narrowed down to four couples. At last, after much of the audience had cheered itself hoarse, the first place was awarded to Miss Martha Pitts and Mr. John Montier. The evening was so successful and the response of the audience was so positive that the cake walk was assured of becoming an institution in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA HAS THE CAKE WALK FEVER

        Not only was the Cake walk Contest repeated annually at Horticultural Hall, but similar “Cake walks and Colored Jubilees” were held at The Academy of Music and other large venues as well.  Philadelphia hosted all the companies of  mammoth, all-black productions that began touring the country. “Black America,” with a cast of over 300, performed at the Grand Opera House on North Broad Street in 1895. The Primrose and West Minstrel Show, above, performed at Gilmore’s Auditorium on Walnut St. in 1896. Smaller vaudeville houses like Carncross’ 11th St. Opera House began featuring African-American acts who performed elaborate cake walk finales. These cake walk production numbers were possibly the first time that whites and blacks performed together on stage. In 1897, Charles Johnson and his wife, the beautiful Dora Dean, left, introduced the graceful, elegant style of cake walk to the Broadway stage. Many in the black community had objected to cake walks,  seeing them as “black people making fools of themselves for the amusement of white people.” Transformed by performers like Johnson and Dean, the cake walk would open the door for a new wave of African-American performers at the turn of the century.

African-Americans in Atlantic City – 1902

        Throughout the 1890s, Philadelphia’s black community sponsored local cake walk contests with one neighborhood or ward competing against another. Prizes were often awarded for both the best comic interpretation and for the most graceful. Often these contests were used as ways to raise money for African-American charities. At first, white charities would hire African-American performers to entertain at functions, but then white Philadelphia caught the cake walk fever. The cakewalk became the first American dance to cross color lines. Dancing schools in fashionable areas began teaching the cake walk and hosting cakewalk contests for their white students. Elite “Society Cake Walks” became the fashion. White country clubs, Elks and Oddfellows lodges began presenting their own cake walks. There were Chinese and Japanese themed cake walks. The Tannheuser Wheelmen bicycle club even presented a “Hebrew Cake Walk,” with ragtime songs performed entirely in Yiddish.

        In 1897,  the dance got another boost when ragtime composers like Kerry Mills began churning out cake walk music, left. The lively syncopation of the melody against a steady bass line made rag time tunes perfect for the cake walk.  Cake walk illustrations were found not only on sheet music but in popular advertising as well. In 1899, acknowleding the “new cake walk craze,” the Art Supplement of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday edition published a “rollicking rag-time” picture, suitable for framing, right.

LE CAKE WALK AMERICAIN

        Just past the turn of the century, the cake walk reached Europe. It became a huge hit in Paris, with French dance masters complaining that “Le Cake Walk Americain” had replaced the French can-can. As the Inquirer reported, “It is not only the worn out aristocracy that asks for new sensations from far off lands, but the idle bourgeoisie as well, grown neurasthetic in its turn,” below. After almost two hundred years of taking its cue from European society, America was beginning to export its home grown culture to the rest of the world.


THE “OLD TIME” CAKE WALK

        It had crossed color lines and international boundaries and had leaped from the stage to the ballroom floor, but by 1910, the “old time” cake walk was giving giving way to new dances spawned by ragtime music. Philadelphia would forget the cake walk as it dealt with the even more alarming grizzly bear, bunny hug and turkey trot that invaded its ballrooms.

        Luckily, the Library of  Congress has preserved some fascinating footage of a 1903 cake walk, filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. You can see some of the grace and style of the “walkers” here:

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