Cakewalk is a traditional African American form of music and dance which originated among slaves in the Southern United States. Slaves mimicked their masters’ affectations, namely the way they walked, parodying the movement to create a new style.
“Us slave watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced a minuet and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we’d do it too, but we used to mock ’em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better.” Baldwin, B. (1981). The Cakewalk: A study in stereotype and reality. Journal of Social History, 15 (2), 208.
The dance takes its name from competitions held on plantations prior to Emancipation, in which prizes, sometimes cake, were given for the best dancers.
The cakewalk is an example of everyday movement through mimicry can be transformed into an expression of resistance.
During the turn of the century, white performers appropriated the cakewalk, showcasing it in minstrel shows, thus the dance became associated with America’s dark racist past.
Later, in the 1940’s, Katherine Dunham boldly decided to include her version of the cakewalk in a performance. Failing to convince her dancers to perform in this risky piece, Dunham resolved to dance it herself. In a sense, she restored the mimetic aspect of the dance by emphasizing the stylization of the walk.
Dance intensifies ordinary movements as literature intensifies ordinary language.
All movements we make from walking to folding sheets are stylized. In other words, we are living in technique all day.