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PHOTO ESSAY

Origins of Popular Dance

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Walking For Dat Cake

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.

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