Golliwogg's Cakewalk may now be the most celebrated remnant of the cakewalk, but in the early 20th century when it was written, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Baudelaire died before that craze hit, but the following two poems make only too clear the link between dance and illness that added to the French fascination with the whole cohort of frenzied dances that appeared in the same time frame.

Selections from Fleurs du mal
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

Danse macabre The dance of death

Fière, autant qu'un vivant, de sa noble stature
Avec son gros bouquet, son mouchoir et ses gants
Elle a la nonchalance et la désinvolture
D'une coquette maigre aux airs extravagants.

Vit-on jamais au bal une taille plus mince?
Sa robe exagérée, en sa royale ampleur,
S'écroule abondamment sur un pied sec que pince
Un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur.

La ruche qui se joue au bord des clavicules,
Comme un ruisseau lascif qui se frotte au rocher,
Défend pudiquement des lazzi ridicules
Les funèbres appas qu'elle tient à cacher.

Ses yeux profonds sont faits de vide et de ténèbres,
Et son crâne, de fleurs artistement coiffé,
Oscille mollement sur ses frêles vertèbres.
Ô charme d'un néant follement attifé.

Aucuns t'appelleront une caricature,
Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair,
L'élégance sans nom de l'humaine armature.
Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon goût le plus cher!

Viens-tu troubler, avec ta puissante grimace,
La fête de la Vie? ou quelque vieux désir,
Eperonnant encor ta vivante carcasse,
Te pousse-t-il, crédule, au sabbat du Plaisir?

Au chant des violons, aux flammes des bougies,
Espères-tu chasser ton cauchemar moqueur,
Et viens-tu demander au torrent des orgies
De rafraîchir l'enfer allumé dans ton coeur?

Inépuisable puits de sottise et de fautes!
De l'antique douleur éternel alambic!
À travers le treillis recourbé de tes côtes
Je vois, errant encor, l'insatiable aspic.

Pour dire vrai, je crains que ta coquetterie
Ne trouve pas un prix digne de ses efforts
Qui, de ces coeurs mortels, entend la raillerie?
Les charmes de l'horreur n'enivrent que les forts!

Le gouffre de tes yeux, plein d'horribles pensées,
Exhale le vertige, et les danseurs prudents
Ne contempleront pas sans d'amères nausées
Le sourire éternel de tes trente-deux dents.

Pourtant, qui n'a serré dans ses bras un squelette,
Et qui ne s'est nourri des choses du tombeau?
Qu'importe le parfum, l'habit ou la toilette?
Qui fait le dégoûté montre qu'il se croit beau.

Bayadère sans nez, irrésistible gouge,
Dis donc à ces danseurs qui font les offusqués:
«Fiers mignons, malgré l'art des poudres et du rouge
Vous sentez tous la mort! Ô squelettes musqués,

Antinoüs flétris, dandys à face glabre,
Cadavres vernissés, lovelaces chenus,
Le branle universel de la danse macabre
Vous entraîne en des lieux qui ne sont pas connus!

Des quais froids de la Seine aux bords brûlants du Gange,
Le troupeau mortel saute et se pâme, sans voir
Dans un trou du plafond la trompette de l'Ange
Sinistrement béante ainsi qu'un tromblon noir.

En tout climat, sous tout soleil, la Mort t'admire
En tes contorsions, risible Humanité
Et souvent, comme toi, se parfumant de myrrhe,
Mêle son ironie à ton insanité!»

Carrying bouquet, and handkerchief, and gloves,
Proud of her height as when she lived, she moves
With all the careless and high-stepping grace,
And the extravagant courtesan's thin face.

Was slimmer waist e'er in a ball-room wooed?
Her floating robe, in royal amplitude,
Falls in deep folds around a dry foot, shod
With a bright flower-like shoe that gems the sod.

The swarms that hum about her collar-bones
As the lascivious streams caress the stones,
Conceal from every scornful jest that flies,
Her gloomy beauty; and her fathomless eyes

Are made of shade and void; with flowery sprays
Her skull is wreathed artistically, and sways,
Feeble and weak, on her frail vertebrae.
O charm of nothing decked in folly! they

Who laugh and name you a Caricature,
They see not, they whom flesh and blood allure,
The nameless grace of every bleached, bare bone,
That is most dear to me, tall skeleton!

Come you to trouble with your potent sneer
The feast of Life! or are you driven here,
To Pleasure's Sabbath, by dead lusts that stir
And goad your moving corpse on with a spur?

Or do you hope, when sing the violins,
And the pale candle-flame lights up our sins,
To drive some mocking nightmare far apart,
And cool the flame hell lighted in your heart?

Fathomless well of fault and foolishness!
Eternal alembic of antique distress!
Still o'er the curved, white trellis of your sides
The sateless, wandering serpent curls and glides.

And truth to tell, I fear lest you should find,
Among us here, no lover to your mind;
Which of these hearts beat for the smile you gave?
The charms of horror please none but the brave.

Your eyes' black gulf, where awful broodings stir,
Brings giddiness; the prudent reveller
Sees, while a horror grips him from beneath,
The eternal smile of thirty-two white teeth.

For he who has not folded in his arms
A skeleton, nor fed on graveyard charms,
Recks not of furbelow, or paint, or scent,
When Horror comes the way that Beauty went.

O irresistible, with fleshless face,
Say to these dancers in their dazzled race:
"Proud lovers with the paint above your bones,
Ye shall taste death, musk-scented skeletons!

Withered Antinoils, dandies with plump faces,
Ye varnished cadavers, and grey Lovelaces,
Ye go to lands unknown and void of breath,
Drawn by the rumour of the Dance of Death.

From Seine's cold quays to Ganges' burning stream,
The mortal troupes dance onward in a dream;
They do not see, within the opened sky,
The Angel's sinister trumpet raised on high.

In every clime and under every sun,
Death laughs at ye, mad mortals, as ye run;
And oft perfumes herself with myrrh, like ye;
And mingles with your madness, irony!"

English translation reprinted from Baudelaire, his prose and poetry, ed. by T. R. Smith, 1919.

The dancing serpent

Link to English translation

Le Serpent qui danse

Que j'aime voir, chère indolente,
De ton corps si beau,
Comme une étoffe vacillante,
Miroiter la peau!

Sur ta chevelure profonde
Aux âcres parfums,
Mer odorante et vagabonde
Aux flots bleus et bruns,

Comme un navire qui s'éveille
Au vent du matin,
Mon âme rêveuse appareille
Pour un ciel lointain.

Tes yeux, où rien ne se révèle
De doux ni d'amer,
Sont deux bijoux froids où se mêle
L'or avec le fer.

À te voir marcher en cadence,
Belle d'abandon,
On dirait un serpent qui danse
Au bout d'un bâton.

Sous le fardeau de ta paresse
Ta tête d'enfant
Se balance avec la mollesse
D'un jeune éléphant,

Et ton corps se penche et s'allonge
Comme un fin vaisseau
Qui roule bord sur bord et plonge
Ses vergues dans l'eau.

Comme un flot grossi par la fonte
Des glaciers grondants,
Quand l'eau de ta bouche remonte
Au bord de tes dents,

Je crois boire un vin de Bohême,
Amer et vainqueur,
Un ciel liquide qui parsème
D'étoiles mon coeur!

 

Images

Find below all manner of images conveying the role the cakewalk played in turn-of-the century Paris.

First, though, a more traditional scene. By contrast with cakewalk mayhem, it's obvious that a ballet class telegraphs order and authority.

   The Dance Class  (c. 1874), Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

The Dance Class (c. 1874), Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Here a proper dance school attempts to convey the intricacies of the cake walk steps while lamenting its bizarre nature and fantastical turns.

The following image graphically conveys the courteous"danse d'autrefois" vis-a-vis the menacing "danse d'autour d'hui."

And below we see that menace played out in a traditional ballet pose; it becomes clear that the menace, in large part, resides in the race of the creators, rather than the particular steps, of the cakewalk. this cartoon facetiously proposes a “white slave trade,” clearly a thought so inconceivable as to appear farcical. The image implies a rape scene in the guise of dance, with the muscular black male carrying away his nude, ravaged victim.

While the Elks, the American couple who brought the cakewalk to France, were white, all their sidekicks were black.

Moving away from both ballet and whites, one begins to see the cakewalk portrayed in its "natural" primitivist setting. Here, in a carnival scene from the “Pays- Noir” or “Nation of Blacks,” a black disguised as a white turns on her compatriots and insults them, demanding in rude language that the “worthless bits of coal” “shut up.”

Not only primitive, but the very epitome of laughable incompetence, these babies levitate in lieu of nursing:

  “Les petits imprudents, au lieu de téter, ils ont soufflé." (The little foolhardy ones; instead of sucking, they puffed.)

“Les petits imprudents, au lieu de téter, ils ont soufflé." (The little foolhardy ones; instead of sucking, they puffed.)

Sex was never far from the equation. 

  "You know, your wife has betrayed you with a negro!" "Oh! Cool!... I’ll have cakewalk lessons at my fingertips!"

"You know, your wife has betrayed you with a negro!"
"Oh! Cool!... I’ll have cakewalk lessons at my fingertips!"

The unfortunate black man below, who'd apparently taken up with a white woman, is condemned as a bigamist since his white conquest counts for two.

  Top caption: "The old American good-cheer" Bottom caption: "One white is worth two blacks—my friend, you are going to be hung as a bigamist."

Top caption: "The old American good-cheer"
Bottom caption: "One white is worth two blacks—my friend, you are going to be hung as a bigamist."

The  black man pictured here gallantly proffers  a white arm, probably recently acquired in some violent escapade, to a naked woman who further emphasizes his uncultivated tendencies.

  “Will you permit me to offer an arm?”

“Will you permit me to offer an arm?”

The splendid portal to the cathedral at Conques,France, dating from the 1100's, illustrates well the long-standing equation of monkeys, sin, and damnation. Similar equations were at work in fin-de siècle Paris, and they often included the cakewalk.   

   Tympan de    Conques

Tympan de Conques

The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 coincided with the French forays into Africa, and monkeys were very much on people's minds.  It was very convenient to assume that evolutionary stages had passed from African monkeys through African blacks before reaching the exalted heights of the French themselves, and hundreds of cartoons from the era feature cakewalkers, usually black, in the company of monkeys. Clearly an Africa viewed as primitive, barbaric, and alluring was never far from the minds of the French as they viewed this novel dance.

 This announces the arrival of a troupe of exotic dancers at the Nouveau-Cirque, a popular circus/music hall in Paris.  The circus, music, and dance all joined as popular entertainment.

This announces the arrival of a troupe of exotic dancers at the Nouveau-Cirque, a popular circus/music hall in Paris.  The circus, music, and dance all joined as popular entertainment.

Not only monkeys but primeval reptiles seem to have given rise to the ever-fascinating and forbidden dance.

In the famous poster below the queen of the cafe-concert, Jane Avril, demonstrates graphically the risqué possibilities of contemporary dance.  It soon becomes clear that whites too are happy to join in the sinful pleasures.

 “Jane Avril”  (1893) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, Albi 1864–1901 Saint-André-du-Bois),  via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under  CC0 1.0

“Jane Avril” (1893) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, Albi 1864–1901 Saint-André-du-Bois),  via The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0

In a nice inversion, a black here comments that because good whites have taken the cake-walk from poor negros, the poor negros will take waltzes and minuets from the good whites.

All manner of eminent statesmen were portrayed in various cartoons as forsaking those waltzes and minuets and joining the general dancing mayhem that had Paris in its grip.

Here, in a French version of black dialect, “Mousié  [Monsieur] Roosevelt” [Theodore Roosevelt, who was President of the US from 1901-1909] is laughingly quoted as saying there’s no difference between whites and blacks.
Hah!” is essentially the verdict. “that would be too nice...”

4.03 Aux Etats-Unis.jpg

This cakewalk  "cauchemar" or "nightmare" is obviously a lot of fun!

This article from the July 14, 1901 issue of Le Courrier français expands on the lazy nature of the nègre, who, it claims, prefers to spend life laying in the sun when not busy satisfying his cannibalistic tendencies by devouring whites.

4.22 negres.jpg

Not only the music itself, but the decorative flourishes surrounding it make clear that EVERYONE can dance the cakewalk.

As this shot of Judy Garland in the 1938 film, ”Everybody Sing,” demonstrates, blackface, the practice of applying cork to a white face, lingered  on the entertainment horizon well into the 20th century.  The practice went back centuries (witness Othello), but reached its apex with the popularity of white minstrel shows in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries.

In this shocking and all-too-recent 2013 Facebook posting, Anne Leclere, National Front politician, compared Christiane Taubira, French Minister of Justice, to a monkey and posited that she’d be better off swinging from trees than serving in government. One hundred years have passed since the cakewalk craze, but it's clear that whites still parade their racism by placing blacks in the jungle.

 

Musical examples

Golliwog's Cake Walk from Children's Corner Suite, 1906-1908 (Walter Gieseking)

Second only to "Clair de Lune,"  this may be Debussy's most famous contribution to the piano literature, though far from his most ambitious! Despite the unpleasant associations of the cakewalk with minstrel shows, blackface, and the rampant racism of the era, the charm of the music's cakewalk rhythms and its swaggering joviality have endeared it to listeners and performers alike.  The middle interlude, with its apparent snide reference to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde only heightens the pleasure we take here in less portentous pastimes.

"General Lavine" - excentric, Prelude no. 6, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

General Lavine, the American clown, is instructed by Debussy to saunter to a cakewalk rhythm, and the hidden reference to "Camptown Races" in the middle section, seals his fate as part of a minstrel show.  Circuses, minstrel shows, and cabarets were all part of the entertainment scene in fin-de-siècle Paris, and one of Debussy's charms is his ability to incorporate elements of all three into his "high" art.

Le Petit Nègre, 1909 (Gieseking)

This is Debussy's other cakewalk-- less celebrated than Golliwogg, but just as directly appealing.  Its title tells us exactly what the racial stereotypes were for the dance.

Danse (Tarentelle styrienne), 1890 (Gieseking, 1953)

This piece has had a number of incarnations.  It was first written  by Debussy in 1891 and published as Tarantella styrienne; he revised it slightly and re-published it in 1903, titling it Danse. Later yet, in 1923, Ravel orchestrated it, no doubt attracted by the sizzling rhythms and energy of Debussy's creation.  Tarantella rhythms, with their 6/8 meter, and propulsive drive, have attracted composers as unlike as Schubert, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff across the centuries.