Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cakewalk

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 10, 2013

Whenever something is easy, sure or certain, you might hear someone describe it as a cakewalk. It seems like a funny moniker for something easy, sure or certain, especially in light of the word’s history. A cakewalk is a dance with strutting steps based on a promenade. A promenade is a march of guests into a ballroom that signals the opening of a formal ball. What this means is that a cakewalk is a less formal version of a promenade where participants showcase intricate and eccentric dance steps.

It originated with African American slaves used cakewalks as subtle satire that mocked the elegance of ballroom dances at gatherings hosted by their white owners. But it wasn’t just African American slaves who danced cakewalks. There’s also a Scottish competitive highland dance that’s known as a cakewalk, after it was seen performed in the U.S.

The cakewalk (which is only performed at the top level of competition) that was introduced to Scotland from the United States by dancer, judge and examiner James L. McKenzie (1905-1992) who was also one of the founders of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance. The inclusion of a cakewalk made sense to James L. McKenzie in light of the history of highland dancing. For several centuries, highland dancing was used as exercise to keep the Scottish regiments fit and ready for battle. For example, a typical six-step Highland Fling requires a dancer to execute complicated steps while jumping vertically (without assistance) up into the air 192 times. So what may be considered a negative in America is seen as a positive in the world of highland dancing.

Readers are probably curious to know how far back the expression cakewalk goes, and Idiomation has done the research to track it as far back as possible until the trail goes cold.

On October 17, 2010 Eva Moskowitz spoke with the New York Daily News about the opening of Success Academy, a charter school on the upper West Side. Just like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and Harlem Success schools had become high profile charter schools, the same was anticipated for this new charter school. In the article, Eva Moskowitz was quoting as saying:

“We think there’s tremendous parental need and demand” on the West Side, says Moskowitz. “It’s an anxiety-producing experience, no matter what your race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, to find a great public school for your child. Just because you have more means doesn’t mean that it’s a cakewalk.”

The Petersburg Times published an article by journalist Fred Girard on February 11, 1970 that announced that Hugh Durham, head coach of the Florida State Seminoles had watched his 100th game as head coach. The team had defeated the Florida Southern Moccasins with a score of 98 to 74. There was a lot of excitement over the win as well as over the coach’s 100th game. The article was entitled, “It’s a Cakewalk For Hugh 98-74.”

Going back a generation, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune carried a story out of New York in their July 2, 1939 edition that was all about the upcoming Jack Dempsey fight … one that involved an emergency appendectomy at Polyclininc Hospital. The Executive Officer, A.A. Jaller, reassured the media that the surgeon, Dr. Robert Emery Brennan felt positive about the recovery, quoting Jack Dempsey’s temperature was being 100.8 degrees with a pulse of 70 and respiration of 22. The article was entitled, “Jack Dempsey Sure He Can’t Lose This Fight” and read in part:

Earlier the old Manassa Mauler had sent word through his secretary, Ned Brown, to “tell ’em all hello. How could a guy lose with so many seconds in his corner? It’s a cakewalk.”

On February 22, 1907 the New York Times carried the sensational news report about a trial where the husband of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was being tried for the murder of Stanford White. The article talked about how she had burst into tears “as she told how Stanford White had given her champagne and forced her to receive his attentions.” At the time of the incidents, Evelyn wasn’t yet married to her husband, Harry Thaw.  Details were shared in the article including the following:

Q. – Do you know a place in Paris called the Dead Rate?
A. – Yes.
Q. – What sort of a place is it?
A. – It was a café.
Q. – Did it seem to you reputable the night you were there?
A. – Well, I don’t know. People were sitting about eating and drinking, that is all, and somebody danced.
Q. – Wasn’t that about 2 o’clock in the morning?
A. – Probably.
Q. – And wasn’t it a cakewalk?
A. – I remember distinctly a Russian dance.
Q. – Was this before or after Mr. Thaw had proposed to you in Paris and you had refused him?
A. – It was after, I think it was the next year, 1904.
Q. – With whom did you go to the Dead Rat?
A. – With Mr. Thaw and I think a Mr. Shubert, the theatrical manager, and with another man, who had been a theatrical manager, but I don’t remember his name.

The cakewalk was confirmed in a letter produced in evidence by the District Attorney that was written by Thaw while he was in Paris which read in part:

I had not introduced the young ladies to [Evelyn Nesbit], but they all grinned sweetly and asked her too, and about three dozen men. The night before the Grand Prix there was an impromptu soiree at the Café de Paris. Somebody got Miss Winchester cakewalking about 2 o’clock. Much applause. After some coaxing [name withheld] began by herself. Belmont was at another table with Rosenfeld.

If the cakewalk was known at the turn of the 20th century, then how far back does the cakewalk reach? According to a story entitled, “May Irwin, Ragtime And The Cake Walk” published in the Boston Evening Transcript of February 14, 190,2 the dance had quite a history as evidenced by this passage:

In a similar manner Miss Irwin learned to do her cakewalk from genuine Negroes, but not on a Virginia plantation, as might be inferred. On the contrary, it was up among the Thousand Islands where she has a beautiful summer home. At a hotel the colored employees were getting up a cakewalk for their own entertainment and nobody was to be allowed to attend. By bribery Miss Irwin and two friends were smuggled into the rear of the great dininghall, from which the tables and chairs had been cleared for the festivities. The dapper young waiters and the prim little chambermaids walked for the cake in the most unsatisfactory manner, unsatisfactory to the cook of the establishment, a bouncing Ethiopian with avoirdupois going beyond the reach of obesity pills. Finally, with a grunt of disgust she started. “Let me show you how to do it,” and show them she did, but by far the most interested spectator was the plump, blond actress who spent the rest of the night gyrating before a full-length mirror until she acquired that grotesque gait with which Miss Irwin never fails to secure a laugh when she ambles down to the footlights. With the ragtime and the cakewalk it is not strange that she feels indebted to the Negro.

And the Morning Herald published at story entitled, “President’s Reception” on March 22, 1899 gave news that President McKinley had enjoyed a full day of quiet and rest at Jekyl Island. Among the tidbits of information on the President’s time away from the White House. Among the tidbits was this:

Tonight an old-fashioned cakewalk, participated in by the colored people about the island, was given at the clubhouse and was attended by the President, club members and guests of the island.

Delving back even further, the expression appeared in Harper’s Magazine in October, 1879

Reader, didst ever attend a cake walk given by the colored folks?

he cakewalk, as you know from reading the intro to this entry, came from African American slaves, and the last slaves were freed in 1865.  The dance was first mentioned during the Antebellem Era (1800 – 1860) since freed slaves already spoke about cakewalks in days gone by at the time of their freedom.

Liza Jones, was born a slave of Charley Bryant near Liberty, Texas. She was one of the African Americans whose story was part of the compilation, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interview with Former Slaves: 1936 – 1938.” The compilation was prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project assembled by the Library Of Congress Project that formed part of the Works Projects Administration, and published in 1941. She remembered the day the soldiers came and her family were no longer slaves.

“When de Yankees come to see iffen dey had done turn us a-loose, I am a nine year old nigger gal. That make me about 81 now. Dey promenade up to de gate and de drum say a-dr-um-m-m-m-m, and de man in de blue uniform he git down to open de gate. Old massa he see dem comin’ and he runned in de house and grab up de gun. When he come hustlin’ down off de gallery, my daddy come runnin’.”

The Civil War ended in 1865 which means that Liza Jones was born in  1855 or 1856. When it came to talk about the cakewalk, she had this to say about it:

“Dey had nice parties in slavery time and right afterwards. Dey have candy pullin’ and corn shuckin’s and de like. Old Massa Day and Massa Bryant, dey used to put dey niggers together and have de prize dances. Massa Day allus lose, ’cause us allus beat he niggers at dancin’. Lawd, when I clean myself up, I sho’ could teach dem how to buy a cake-walk in dem days. I could cut de pigeon wing, jes’ pull my heels up and clack dem together. Den us do de back step and de banquet, too.”

That being said, the trail went cold and Idiomation was unable to peg an earlier date for cakewalk than the Antebellum era, and so the expression dates back to between 1800 and 1860, just before the U.S. Civil War.

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