Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Slavery The Plantation South & The Cakewalk

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Its origins in slavery and the plantation south, the Cakewalk was the sole organized and even condoned forum for servants to mock their masters. A send-up of the rich folks in the "Big House," the cakewalk mocked the aristocratic and grandiose mannerisms of southern high-society. Much bowing and bending were characteristic of the dance, which was more a performance than anything else. Couples lined up to form an aisle, down which each pair would take a turn at a high-stepping promenade through the others. In many instances the Cakewalk was performance, and even competition. The dance would be held at the master’s house on the plantation and he would serve as judge. The dance’s name comes from the cake that would be awarded to the winning couple.

Carnival in full effect, the cakewalk festivities turned convention on its head. The time of the dance was one in which typical order was set aside. Lowly slaves and servants were encouraged to mock the masters to whom obedience was mandated at all other times. The dancers donned fine clothes and adopted high-toned manners, and for the length of the performance they were not slaves but the stars of the show, their racial and social standing transcended.


As much as the cakewalk managed to overcome these barriers temporarily, however, it reinforced them the rest of the time. Because the dance was generally sponsored and judged by the plantation owner, he became master of ceremonies, and became master of the joke as well. If the master is in on the jokes that mock him, then the jokes no longer harm his standing with the slaves. So it was with the cakewalk, which further reinforced the master’s authority in allowing him to name a winner and thus make even his symbolic overthrow an attempt to appease him and an act of his decree.


That the nation’s attention came to the cakewalk is largely as a result of minstrel shows in the late nineteenth century. The dance’s exaggerated nature served perfectly for the physical, hammy humor of the stage shows, the participants generally played as goofy and bumbling as possible. The cakewalk’s original meaning was lost; where it had originally been black slaves attempt to mock their superiors and for a minute live in autonomy, it had come to be the bumbling attempts of poor blacks to mimic the manners of whites. The dancers were no longer joking, but were portrayed as genuinely wantingto be like the superiors. This interpretation held great appeal in a nation where race relations were whites’ concerns about blacks were building steadily, and it became a way to briefly escape that tension. Again dance had become a method of evasion and of escape, but now it was a tool for white the middle class to assure its social status and to ignore the spirit that gave rise to the cakewalk in its first incarnation. (source: X-Roads Virginia)


Cake Walk - This dance, originally know as the chalk line walk originated among the Black slaves of Florida. It was an exaggerated parody of the more formal dances of Whites that they witnessed. While first performed in the spirit of rebellion it was eventually assimilated into plantation life as it spread northward with the slave owner often dolling out hoecakes to the winners of sanctioned competitions. By the time minstrel shows carried the dance throughout the United States and introduced it to Europe, it became known as the cake walk. Because of the racist nature of minstrel shows the dance was transformed from being a parody of Whites to that of Blacks aspiring to dance as White people. With the addition of ragtime music in a climate of growing racial tensions the cake walk became a fad and was depicted on numerous postcards. It is not always easy to determine the butt of the joke on these comic cards as they can be of this Black dance or of the Whites who are trying to dance it.

Born in 1871 James Weldon Johnson made observations of a cakewalk at a ball in his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:

However, it was at one of these balls that I first saw the cake-walk. There was a contest for a gold watch, to be awarded to the hotel head-waiter receiving the greatest number of votes. There was some dancing while the votes were being counted. Then the floor was cleared for the cake-walk. A half-dozen guests from some of the hotels took seats on the stage to act as judges, and twelve or fourteen couples began to walk for a sure enough, highly decorated cake, which was in plain evidence.


The spectators crowded about the space reserved for the contestants and watched them with interest and excitement. The couples did not walk round in a circle, but in a square, with the men on the inside. The fine points to be considered were the bearing of the men, the precision with which they turned the corners, the grace of the women, and the ease with which they swung around the pivots. The men walked with stately and soldierly step, and the women with considerable grace. The judges arrived at their decision by a process of elimination. The music and the walk continued for some minutes; then both were stopped while the judges conferred; when the walk began again, several couples were left out. In this way the contest was finally narrowed down to three or four couples. Then the excitement became intense; there was much partisan cheering as one couple or another would execute a turn in extra elegant style. When the cake was finally awarded, the spectators were about evenly divided between those who cheered the winners and those who muttered about the unfairness of the judges. This was the cake-walk in its original form, and it is what the colored performers on the theatrical stage developed into the prancing movements now known all over the world, and which some Parisian critics pronounced the acme of poetic motion. —James Weldon Johnson: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912, Chapter 5, p. 50



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