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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        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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        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.


        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.


        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.


        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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     This month I’ll concentrate on dance crazes that swept Philadelphia: the waltz in the late 18th century, the polka in the 19th century and the ragtime mania of the early 20th century. Click on any image for a closer view.

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In 1914, Elizabeth Robins Pennell wrote a memoir called “Our Philadelphia,” which her husband Joseph illustrated.  In it, she recalls her childhood in the late nineteenth century, her grandfather’s house on Spruce and 11th Sts., right, and the Philadelphia world in which she moved. Here she describes the sometimes frustrating predictability of  Philadelphia society and dancing during her youth at the end of the 19th century:

“Philadelphia had a standard for its parties, as for everything, and to deviate from this standard, to attempt originality, to invent the “freak” entertainments of New York, would have been excessively bad form. You danced in the same spacious front and back parlors . . . to the same music by Hassler’s band; where you ate the same Terrapin, Croquettes, Chicken Salad, Oysters, Boned Turkey and Ice Cream, where the same Cotillon began at the same hour with the same figures and the same favors and the same partners. There was no getting away from the same people in Philadelphia. That was the worst of it.”

She had grown up in that timeless post-Civil War Philadelphia where  “good” Philadelphia families, meaning those residing south of Market Street, sent generations of children to the right dancing school, i.e. Solomon Asher’s Academy at the venerable Natatorium at 219 South Broad Street, below, to learn the correct Philadelphia deportment while doing the correct quadrilles, waltzes and two-steps.

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Those same proper Philadelphians were far from prepared when the “modern” ragtime music and dance craze swept across the Quaker City in the 1910s just as it did across the rest of the country. These new dances didn’t come from the elegant Paris and London salons that had been regarded as the ideals of taste and culture for so long, but from the dance halls and honky-tonks of the notorious Barbary Coast in San Francisco. They were a veritable menagerie of dances like the Grizzly Bear, (left), the Turkey Trot, the Chicken Scratch and the Bunny Hug. First seen as novelty dances on Philadelphia vaudeville stages, they soon swooped, loped and trotted their way into Philadelphia society. They were raucous, they were lively, they were fun and they were truly American in origin, but were they “decent?” Philadelphia wasn’t sure. At first, the New York Times reported,

“The Turkey Trot has invaded Philadelphia’s most exclusive dancing circles. ‘Everybody is doing it this season,’ Mrs. Drexel Biddle said, ‘and I am doing my best to learn it . . .  It is a hard dance to do.’”

Within a month, though, the city’s taste makers thought better of it, and in a total about-face, headlines now read,

“PHILADELPHIA BANS THE TROT! The turkey trot and grizzly bear will no longer be tolerated in society here. It is understood that the two dances have all but caused several scandals in some of Philadelphia’s best families.”

Within the next few months universities, clubs and churches all over the Philadelphia region vied in banning these new dances.

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To make matters worse, 1913 saw the introduction of the most insidious, controversial and exotic dance of all – the tango.  The tango came to Philadelphia from Argentina by way of Paris. The Pope in Rome immediately forbade all Catholics from dancing the tango, but Philadelphians took more time about making up their minds. Some condemned it without ever seeing it, some ran to be the first to take lessons. Within a few months, however, restaurants and hotels were clearing spaces for  late afternoon “tango teas” so that downtown shopgirls and secretaries could spend an hour or two practicing the latest steps –and imbibing a cocktail or two– before heading to the trolleys and trains that took them home. Wanamakers, Strawbridges and Lit Brothers sold “tango shirts” and “tango shoes” for men  and “tango sashes,” “tango hats” and even flexible “tango corsets” for women. Bolts of brilliant orange fabric that had sat unsold in dry goods stores flew off the shelves when the color was dubbed “tango.”

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The number of studios in the city teaching the “modern dances” tripled within a year. The Inquirer and the Evening Ledger competed to print whole series of articles describing the latest steps and the newest dances; the Hesitation Waltz, the Castle Walk, and something called the Foxtrot.  Advertisements for locally made Victrola gramophones assured Philadelphians that they could now practice their tango variations in the privacy of their homes, even on Sundays, when Pennsylvania Blue Laws forbade public dancing. Respectable ballrooms and “dance palaces” appeared in the city for the first time. (In 1918 The Roseland Ballroom would open on Market Street, long before its more famous other location in New York.)

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Riding on the crest of this dance mania were the first American ballroom stars, Vernon and Irene Castle, right. The Castles removed all the objectionable elements from ragtime dances, and shrewdly marketed themselves, their dances and their elegant New York studio to the best society in the city. They warned “Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not flounce the elbows. . . Remember you are at a social gathering, and not in a gymnasium. Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful, and out of fashion.” When they appeared at B.F. Keith’s vaudeville stage at 1116  Chestnut Street in November 0f 1914, the house was sold out and many were turned away as Philadelphians thronged not only to see the newest dances performed by America’s ballroom dance stars, but to catch a glimpse of Irene’s bobbed hair and latest, fashion-setting gowns.

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America’s entrance into World War I put a sober end to that incredible “modern dance mania.” When the doughboys returned after the war, something called “jazz” had taken the place of ragtime music.  But in those amazing few years before  the war, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug had shaken up traditional Philadelphians, forever changing the way they danced and the kind of music they danced to. As the story of Marguerite Walz, January 22 post, below, shows us, in the 1920s jazz music and jazz dances like the Charleston along with the impossible task of enforcing of National Prohibition would create new scandals and problems for Philadelphians.

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●  “Our Philadelphia,” Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1914, illustrated by Joseph Pennell

  The Philadelphia Inquirer 1911-1916

●  “Modern Dancing,” Vernon and Irene Castle, 1916

  The New York Times, December 22, 1911 and January 5, 1912

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Dance masters have always tried to control – and condemn – what the untutored masses do on the dance floor. In 1884, appalled by the vulgar habits and sloppy styling that had crept into our nation’s ballrooms, American dance teachers formed The National Association of Masters of Dancing. For decades, they tried unsuccessfully to refine or abolish, in turn, the two-step, the turkey-trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, the tango, the foxtrot, the toddle, the shimmy, the charleston and the lindy hop. Whew! They knew that casting themselves as arbiters of taste and as the only authorities on the latest steps was good for 1. their prestige and 2. their business. The chronic problem, however, was that although teachers could monitor what went on in their classes, they had no control over what the fun loving public was actually doing in dance halls and at public dances.


It was Marguerite Walz, a Philadelphia dance teacher and Association member, who decided to change that. In an article entitled “Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!,” The Ladies Home Journal reported: “Miss Walz went to the mayor of Philadephia in the spring of 1921 and suggested that the authorities should supervise public dancing. The mayor declared a cleanup was due and he appointed Miss Walz policewoman to supervise dancing in conjunction with the Rev. H. Cresson McHenry, who conducts a mission. ‘My duties,’ said Miss Walz,’ are largely the instruction of about seventy-five policemen who are detailed to enforce the dancing regulations. They are taught what is permissable and what is not . . . The police class in censorship is told not to permit cheek-to-cheek dancing, abdominal contact, shimmy, toddle or the Washington Johnny, in which the legs are kept spread apart.” Walz thus became not only the city’s first official dance censor, but the first Philadelphia policewoman . . . all without pay. The Evening Public Ledger used the awkward and slightly deprecatory term “copette” to describe her position.


1922 Parkway 2nd placeIn order to get dancers out of dark, smoky dance halls – there were 4,000 licensed in Philly – and out in public where they could be monitored, the city decided to sponsor outdoor summer dances on the new Parkway, right, and in West Philadelphia. Marguerite’s short film “Etiquette and Dancing” was screened continually during the events and professional dancers were provided as “models” while the city’s police band played waltzes, polkas and very restrained modern tunes. Cash prizes were given to the best – i.e. “approved” – dancers. Although the Parkway was jammed with a crowd of 18,000 dancers in July, Walz made no arrests; the police would step forward and touch offenders on the shoulder and “that was the end of it.” At first demanding that men wear jackets, she settled for banning males with collarless shirts. At the Dancing Masters’ convention in New York in 1921, Miss Waltz could cheerfully report, “ . . . block parties, with thousands fox-trotting on the streets had improved the reputation of dancing in her city.” Was this anything more than optimistic posturing? We can’t know.

The Walz Dance Studio at 1601 Walnut


By 1922, Miss Marguerite Walz, (the real life Mrs. Charles Townsend of Lansdowne), had earned a national repution as “The East Coast Dance Censor.” Articles about her and quotes from her appeared in newspapers across the country. Touting her alleged Philadelphia accomplishments to Gothamites, she soon opened a branch dance studio in New York City. Paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, she proposed forming a union of dance instructors, “to make dancing safe for decency.”  When later that year she was involved with scandal by association when her brother “Chubby” from Camden, NJ was arrested for murder, Miss Walz coolly and somewhat self-servingly replied, “This whole thing is terrible. You can tell the mothers of America that if the youth of today were not so blatant and vulgar in their speech, this terrible tragedy would never have occurred.”


Today, 90 years later, it’s hard to judge Miss Walz’s motives and intentions. Was she a truly moral minded reformer, or was she a small time dance teacher with ambition and a keen eye for publicity? Early in 1922 Rev. McHenry distanced himself from the whole dance reform movement,  publicly charging that Miss Walz had distorted the dance evil facts for “self-glorification and business reason.” Walz replied, “For my part, it is much more fitting that this should be taken up and discussed in the privacy of the committee.”

How was a local dance teacher able to gain media attention and rise to national celebrity status?  How, not long after the frankly unenforceable Prohibition Amendment had taken effect, was the city able to spare seventy-five officers to police public dances? Perhaps frustrated reformers saw this as one small step in trying to control the social upheavals caused by jazz music, short skirts, technology, bootlegging and general lawlessness that threatened the complacency of 1920s Philadelphia.

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Evr’ybody shimmies now, ev’rybody’s learning how.
Brother Bill, Sister Kate, shiver, like jelly on a plate.
Shimmie dancing can’t be beat,
moves evr’ything except your feet.
Feeble folks mighty old,
shake the shimmie and they shake it bold.
Oh! Honey won’t you show me how,
‘cause ev’rybody shimmies now.

                              – 1919, Eugene West

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● I just discovered that the Fairmount Park Association’s “Museum Without Walls” Audio has more about these 1920s dances on the Parkway here:

Here’s a picture of the Parkway dances they posted from the Evening Bulletin:

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