It’s a Cakewalk

I’ll leave it to you to find the link between yesterday’s song and today’s.

It’s surprising how often a popular dance or musical form has a powerful historical background. Take, for example, the cakewalk, popular at the turn of the last century and featured in one of The Music Man’s great musical numbers, “Shipoopi.”

The dance, it turns out, originated in Florida, and was a mixture of a number of different traditions. White slave owners frequently held elaborate balls and favored formal European ballroom dances. Slaves mimicked those courtly moves, and combined them with the solemn, stately, couples’ walking dance of the Seminole Indians.

Watching the slaves’ processions became a popular spectator pasttime for slaveholders, evolving into regular Sunday contests held for the pleasure of the master and the humiliation of the slave: the Chalk Line Walk.

A chalk line would be drawn, and couples would make their way along it, doing the appropriate turns, with a pail of water on their heads. The couple who spilled the least amount of water would win, and would be awarded hoecakes as prizes (which is actually where the phrase “That takes the cake!” comes from). After a few decades it came to be known as the Cake Walk.

Soon the cakewalk developed into a more elaborate parody of white dances with exaggerated steps and gestures; it also incorporated traditional African Kaffir dance movements (such as the bending back of the body and the dropping of the hands at the wrists). One common form of the cakewalk involved couples linked at the elbows, lining up in a circle, dancing forward, and alternating a series of short hopping steps with a series of very high kicking steps. Costumes worn for the cakewalk often included suits, canes, top hats, and oversized bow ties.

After the Civil War, the cakewalk gradually moved northward and became popular among both whites and blacks for a time. The syncopated music of the cakewalk became a national force in American mainstream music, and with growing complexity and sophistication it evolved into ragtime music in the mid-1890s. Huge dance competitions were held, like the National Cakewalk Jubilee in New York City, where the champions received gold belts and diamond rings.

The cakewalk was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society, and from the stage (minstrel shows) to the ballroom; it would be the window for other African American dances to enter white society in the future. Many upper class summer and seaside hotels featured a cakewalk at the end of the season. From 1903:

The music was adopted into the works of various white composers like John Philip Sousa (the high-stepping strut of drum majors in marching bands is a distinctive cakewalk step) and Claude Debussy. Debussy wrote “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” as the final movement of his Children’s Corner suite for piano (1908):

The cakewalk eventually died out in the 1920s, but there were still traces of it in newer dances like the Lindy Hop and the Big Apple, as you can see in this film from the mid-1930s:

Which brings us back to The Music Man. Written in 1957 but set in 1912, the musical made use of a number of dance styles popular at the turn of the century: tap, soft shoe, square dancing — and the cakewalk. “Shipoopi” is one of the highlights of the entire show. Even the lyrics are fun, if blatantly sexist:

Well, a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date
Is usually a hussy;
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out
Is anything but fussy.
But a woman who’ll wait till the third time around,
Head in the clouds, feet on the ground,
She’s the girl he’s glad he’s found—
She’s his Shipoopi!

Here’s the inimitable Buddy Hackett doing the song in the 1962 film. Be sure to take note of Onna White’s excellent choreography, which brings together a number of different styles popular at the turn of the century, including a forerunner of the Charleston. At the point int he song when Harold Hill is asked, “Show us some new steps!” and the couples dance tightly together, keeping their legs rigid and swinging them front and back in unison, or when both face the same direction and walk tightly together — that’s cakewalking par excellence:

Of course, no discussion of the cakewalk or “Shipoopi” would be complete without Peter Griffin’s delightful contribution:


~ by Craig R. Smith on 4 September 2007.

7 Responses to “It’s a Cakewalk”

  1. Absolutely fascinating. And the only link from yesterday’s post I can find is The Family Guy.

  2. Précisément, madame! You get a cookie.

  3. That was fun.

  4. Wow, what a great history-of-dance and etymology lesson.

    I remember hearing on the CBC that one of the Afro-Cuban dances has its origins in the sugar plantations of Cuba, where the slaves were chained together so that they could only move their feet in very small steps…

  5. I found you by chance, searching for lyrics of a September song (what else? *g*). This is a very interesting post and I learned a great deal from you, thank you. 🙂

  6. Helen, that’s a really fascinating bit of information there. It makes sense, too. Thanks so much!

    And Merisi, welcome! I hope you stick around and enjoy the rest of the month’s postings. The photos on your blog are quite beautiful.

  7. The topic of “the cake walk” came up but a scant few weeks ago as I escorted a five year old young lady to a church cakewalk. Her mother asked where the concept came from.

    The only things that were the same was the winner was black and she did, indeed, take the cake.

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