The History of the Cakewalk: Satirizing the Satire

by Karen on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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Before you start snoozing, let me say that the history of the Cakewalk is really fascinating, I promise.  This dance originated in the antebellum South when black slaves would watch their white masters dancing and would mock their dance by performing exaggerated high stepping, curtsys and bows.  Ironically, white slave owners observed this and eventually began mocking and adopting this dance, believing it was a dance of their slaves.  They were performed with the same intention as minstrel performances, which lampooned poorer recently-freed slaves.  Through this popularization and reinterpretation, the original conception of the Cakewalk was lost in the layers of overt racism that permeated the period.

However as time passed and the popularity of the dance rose, the Cakewalk was redefined again by pioneering black Cakewalk dancers such as Ada Overton, who sought to refine its movements so that it would appeal to both white elites and black Americans and elevate this dance to a more “respectable” form.  Through this further transformation of the Cakewalk, the dance became the first mainstream African American dance and paved the way for other such dance forms.

I find the development of things like food, and in this instance dance, fascinating.  It's a beautiful reminder that we don't exist in a vacuum, but are part of a larger ongoing dialogue that creates our rich and complex humanity.

(Images from here and here)

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{ 5 comments }

Lawyer Loves Lunch December 15, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Karen, I agree! It’s totally fascinating how historical developments have shaped our understanding of food (and vice versa). I also love the vintage’y posters at the top. They’d be so perfect in a Southern kitchen!

Lentil Breakdown December 18, 2010 at 1:37 am

Wow, this was really interesting! So is the definition:
1 informal an absurdly or surprisingly easy task : winning the game won’t be a cakewalk.
2 a strutting dance popular at the end of the 19th century, developed from a black-American contest in graceful walking that had a cake as a prize.

Karen December 18, 2010 at 10:44 am

Right, the first definition of cakewalk refers to a different contest which was played at fairs which was sort of a musical chairs that had numbered slots, and the winning number would win a cake. So easy thus “cakewalk.” Thanks for continuing the dialogue– love this!!

PattyT January 27, 2011 at 11:11 am

Fascinating! I’m very familiar with the carnival game cake walk. I’m in my 50′s and from a small Texas town. At school carnivals we would have them as a funraiser (participants would pay some small fee to do the cakewalk, competing for donated cakes). It was conducted similar to the game musical chairs, so no talent or perfomance involved.

Karen January 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I’ve played that before too, I just remember a lot of cake being involved!

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