Davinia Caddy. "Parisian Cake Walks." 19th-Century Music 30/3 (2007): 288-317.
The popularity of the cake walk among Parisians in the early 1900s is usually attributed to the dance’s assumed racial signification, thanks to the scholarship of Jody Blake. Caddy proposes an alternate reading. Looking at popular response on stage, on film, and in the circus, reveals Parisian tastes for American chic, athleticism, and popular participation, as well as the world of the “other.”
When it reached France in 1900 at the World’s Fair, the cake walk was less an African-American style than an explicitly American art form – as American as the Stars and Stripes Forever. Due to the shared musical characteristics between the cake walk and the Sousa marches, the two featured in programs alongside each other. In short, early French audiences did not receive a primitivist understanding of the cake walk, full of banjos and palm trees as Blake describes. Instead, according essays in to Le Monde musicale or Le Gaulois, it was civilized music – civilized, controlled, and stylish – “ave un chic extraordinaire.”
When commentators discussed the cake walk as a dance (introduced by Mr. and Mrs. Elks in 1902 at the Nouveau Cirque), some primitivist language emerges. But Caddy looks at memoirs by Jean Cocteau to show how he describes the cake walk dances as “crooked, wrenching, hammering” and focusing on audience participation. The mechanized nature of the dance contrasted with other dance styles such as the gavotte, minuet, polka, Berline, Boston, and waltz, which all privileged smooth lines and gliding of the feet. In short, the absence of the exotic, the savage, and the “primitive mentality” suggest a further negation of racial signification: the cake walk is once again detached from black cultural production.
This new reading allows for an alternative interpretation of Debussy’s quotation in “Golliwogg’s Cake Walk” (1908) of Wagner’s Tristan. As Lawrence Kramer argues, Debussy deflates Wagner by exposing the ease with which his musical idiom can morph into something trite and common. But Caddy takes issue with this argument. Debussy’s piece has more complex significance than that of a mere canvas on which to poke fun at Wagner. Instead, it suggests a persona shaped by buffoonery, slapstick, and irony: a persona identified with the fetish of modernist art, the clown.