Ragtime defined a performance style and the practices related to playing popular song and instrumental music. An element of Ragtime is cakewalk. Cakewalk is a dance that imitates white upper class behavior. This was originally performed by African American slaves and the best performer generally got a cake as their prize, hence where the name ‘cakewalk’ comes from. In my opinion cakewalk was very much demeaning to African Americans given the idea of it. Overall this post will explain to the general audience the premise of cakewalk, it’s history, and how it expanded outside of the United States.
Cakewalk dances were extremely competitive. Slave couples who had the most attractive steps and motions “took the cake,” which means that they deliberately won a piece of cake. In 1893 there were exhibitions at World fairs in Chicago and competitions at the Madison square Garden. In the late 1890’s through the beginning decade of the twentieth century, Cakewalk became extremely popular. The whole idea of Cakewalk is very degrading to me because I feel that African Americans could have gotten gifted anything else but instead they got a piece of cake. I feel that they should have gotten money or new clothes instead. But overall the cakewalk in general was just another way to make fun of African Americans in my opinion.
In earlier stages, the sheet music of cakewalk, ragtime, and coon songs sounded identical. For commercial reasons the titles “cakewalk” “rag” and others were all printed on the sheet music. The image covers on sheet music started from just images of trees, to stereotypical pictures of African Americans eating watermelons. These stereotyped cover photos were attractive to publishers and buyers and were a way to “prove” its authenticity that it was indeed African American music. The fact that stereotyping African Americans was seen as marketable is mind boggling . This provides insight to me as to why the stereotype lasted so long. It was primarily because it made money back in those days.
One of the most successful pre 1900 cakewalks was “Eli Greens Cakewalk” which was written by Sadie Koninsky
By the end of the nineteenth century the cakewalk as opposed to ragtime, appeared to fascinate European audiences and German speaking countries. Cakewalk infiltrated ballets and operas in Europe. An article printed in Europe talks about the cakewalk in great detail including pictures of the cakewalk in ballrooms and plantations. In Vienna, the cakewalk was introduced in 1903 when the New York times brought attention to it. The fact that the Cakewalk reached so largely outside of the U.S is concerning to me. This shows me that the ridicule of African Americans was a worldwide problem and it still is happening across the world today. This is a problem that should have been stopped but instead it was egged on for the entertainment of others who felt superior to African Americans. Overall, the Cakewalk was a demeaning act that shouldn’t have been a trend back in the day.