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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