Dance has always been closely associated with music. Some say that music's goal is to move people: to make them sway; bob their heads; tap their feet; pop their fingers. Jazz was and still is one of the many tools that make this movement possible. To the swing bands that played at the Savoy, dancing was essential. Dancing does not begin at the Savoy, but originates in Africa and in slavery.

In Africa, dance is a part of life; it is used as a form of communication. The dancers defy space and resist limiting their movement to one part of the body. Therefore, there is often a feeling of dynamic thrust and resistance associated with dance. Because dance is used to communicate, there are as many different styles of dance as there are languages. One particular dance that has survived time and culture changes was the cakewalk.

The cakewalk, as done in Africa, was performed during a rest period in a dance. It was inserted as improvisational "breaks" that allowed couples to separate at various points so that they could have freedom of movement. This breaking pattern, or breaking of the beat from Kongo region is something a person does in order to "break" into the world of the ancestors. In Haiti, during the possession state, there is a drum break which is essentially the same thing.


The first cakewalk done in America was performed by whites on plantations such as those on the sea islands of South Carolina. At their extravagant parties, men and women would start separated and then meet and walk arm and arm down the center aisles. Slaves witnessed this procession and began to mimic the movements. Their movements were exaggerated to imitate and mock their white masters.During the dance, the participants displayed a high stepping strut. They would bend deeply forward or lean far back, moving from low positions to high kicks.


The cakewalk was an improvised promenade and eventually became a dance craze done by many. The dance even incorporated man's natural tendency to compete. In its competitive form, the cakewalk was known as the chalkline walk. It consisted of a straight walk on a path with some turns. The dancers made their way along the path with a pail of water on their heads. The couple who spilled the least amount of water or no water at all, won. The name came from the cake that was awarded the winning couple.


Many entertainment groups adopted various forms of the dance. Blackface minstrels used a form of the cakewalk in the grand finale. They called it the walk around. The high stepping strut was adopted by many marching bands and was performed by the drum major or the band leader. This movement incorporated the use of the whole body like the dances done in Africa.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band in Charleston also picked up this marching band form of the cakewalk. They included a drum major into their shows on the street corners. This person would often dance to the music of the band in an attempt to draw a crowd.



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