The cakewalk, the most racist dance in the world, was originally performed by slaves on and judged by plantation owners.
This dance, originally known as the “chalkline-walk”, the “walk-around” and the “prize walk” originated among the Black slaves of Florida.
The slaves poked fun at white man’s attitudes and manners with “a high-leg prance with a backward tilt of the head, shoulders and upper torso.”
Couples lined up to form an aisle, down which each pair would take a turn at a high-stepping promenade through the others.
The dance’s name comes from the cake that would be awarded to the winning couple.
Were Slave owners in on the cakewalk joke?
According to the ragtime musician Shepard Edmonds, describing the stories of his formerly enslaved parents:
“They did a take-off on the high manners of the white folks in the ‘big-house,’ but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point.”
Others suggest that the Cakewalk was the sole organized and even condoned forum for servants to mock their masters.
As the plantation owner was master of ceremonies, he became master of the joke as well.
“The Two Real Coons.”
The cakewalk was so ingrained in American popular culture and entertainment that from 1892, local cakewalk championships were held in New York’s Madison Square Garden, which hosted a national championship in 1897.
The dance was even performed in 1889 at the Paris World’s Fair!
The cakewalk was taught to English aristocrats and the cream of White American society.
That the nation’s attention came to the cakewalk is largely as a result of minstrel shows in the late nineteenth century.
Surreally, even the African American minstrel acts performed in blackface.
To distinguish themselves from white performers, Williams and Walker billed themselves as “The Two Real Coons.”
As ragtime historian Terry Waldo points out, the dance became about “Blacks imitating whites who were imitating Blacks who were imitating whites.”
The dance’s original meaning was lost.
The great appeal the Cake Walk to late Victorian society was probably its silliness.
Its utter lack of decorum and gravity was a great release for younger Victorians from their society’s stuffiness and strict protocol.
The cake walk gave raise to even sillier variations like the Grizzly Bear where dancers lumber like bears, give each other bear hugs, chase each other and rub their backs on each other like a bear against a tree.
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.