Origins of Popular Dance
Cover art for Walking For Dat Cake (1877), an early cakewalk by composer David Braham. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Emerging on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century, the cakewalk was perhaps the
most influential African American-created popular dance in U.S. history. No less important, the routine,
which was largely a great exaggeration of the minuets and other staid classical dances performed at planters'
cotillions, represented a daring (and risky) defiance of the slaves' masters. Slaveowners either failed to
detect the mockery or just didn't care, and actually encouraged the cakewalk enthusiastically; so popular was the
dance that slaveowners would often hold competitions between slaves, with winning couples awarded a special
cake—thus the term "cakewalk." By the late 1800s it had spread to cities outside the
South and was often the final routine in minstrel shows, at the time performed by whites. (An apt summary of the
whole crude spectacle is provided by Eric Bennett: "whites imitating blacks imitating whites.")
The dance eventually jumped to theater and was most closely associated with the black acting and proto-comedy
duo Bert Williams and George Walker in their seminal 1903 musical In Dahomey. The cakewalk continued to appear in
various productions, eventually converging with ragtime, the fast-paced, piano-heavy music genre also
popularized in minstrelsy and embraced by millions of middle-class American whites. This development, which
would repeat itself countless times in the future, is difficult to understate; joined together with the cakewalk,
ragtime "gave birth to the American music industry" and "ushered in the Jazz Age" (Bennett).
Bennett, Eric. "Cakewalk, The." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American
Experience. 2d ed. Edited by Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.