In Memory of the Cakewalk

During Dr. Defrantz’s discussion of dance, I took a concerted interest in the historical discussion of the quadrille and its parodic descendant, the cakewalk. The discussion of the two dances was one of cultural preservation through the performance of memory, and the ways in which this performance evolved over the past 150 years was a great point of interest. The idea that a dance was able to start as a parody of an upper class performance, but then attain enough cultural capital to become an accepted form of performance by the people who were originally lampooned by the dance.  It has me thinking about how memories and can evolve as they move further and further away, temporally, from their point of inception.

Roach qualifies such displays as tools which helped the slaves to “continue to assert their interdependent traditions” (63), but I feel that this also extends to the dances performed by the upper class people of New Orleans. As Dr. Defrantz said, these were dances which originated in the courts of the French upper class, and were then imported to America by French colonizers and kept alive by the Francophones and Francophiles of the colonies and eventual nation of America. In this regard, the performers of the dance were themselves asserting their interdependent traditions, so they were performing their memories just as much as the slaves they owned were.

This commonality problematizes the divisions that existed between the two classes of people, divisions which were enforced by society. With this division being purely immaterial and ethereal, this renders the separation nil, revealing the supposedly distinct groups as what Roach refers to as “imagined communities” (63).  Roach then purports that these communities are “organized by spirit-world memories” which then differentiate the community through their hallowed rites and rituals (63). Roach addresses these rites in the context of funerals, but I argue that dance is equally receptive to this lens of cultural analysis of New Orleans, as the dances preserve the culture’s memories in the same way that the funeral preserves those of the deceased.

It is this preservation of culture that I believe guided the progression of the cakewalk from obscure parody to a place in general culture. The cakewalk stems from the structures of the quadrille, and its artistic intent and meaning are informed by this cultural allusion. However, due to its place as a cultural article, the cakewalk also took on the ability to grow out of the shadow of its progenitor, which it did as its own mechanics, the over-exaggerated movements, the energy of those moves, and the rhythm of movements, evolved as more time passed. These evolutions in the dance’s mechanics allowed it to form a niche in the grand scheme of American culture. It was assimilated and stripped of its original meaning the course of broader acceptance in the same way that the name “Angola” was when the prison was named after the former slave plantation.

Memory of the original context of the cakewalk was cleansed by the passage of time, and this cleansing allowed it to be more accepted by the future descendants of those slaves and slaveowners. As with everything in America, the cakewalk found its place, because, in the words of Roach, “That’s the way it’s done” (63).

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