- America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk by Megan Pugh
Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Agnes de Mille, Paul Taylor, and Michael Jackson might seem like a crazy cast of characters for a history of dance. Their cakewalks, moonwalks, taps, and ballets from Broadway to Motown and Hollywood all defined a sense of “Americanness” for their audiences. Megan Pugh recognizes that “Americanness” will seem dated and even distasteful, smacking of exceptionalism to many readers. For that reason, it is all the more exciting that [End Page 913] Pugh places race center stage in the making of American dance’s many modern forms. I wish that Pugh were more explicit from the outset about the arguments implicit in her approach. I worry that some readers will miss the central claim that African American performance is the crucial, typically unacknowledged core of America’s dance. Also implicit is the argument that black dance and cultures of movement more generally exerted a crucial influence on the many manifestations of modernism, although modernism is not a central term in Pugh’s study. Still, these claims about race are evident in the delightful stories she tells, and the book might be less engaging if structured by a more conventional presentation of argument.
Given the goals of America Dancing, the cakewalk is a useful choice for “America’s first national dance,” although it is always dangerous to claim a “first” (10). Invented by slaves to ridicule their masters, the cakewalk was a parody of the strutting of elite whites. The dance turned into a competition, often supported by masters who awarded cakes to winners with perhaps little understanding of the parody. Cakewalkers kicked their legs forward as they promenaded their partners in a circle disrupted by solo embellishments. By the 1890s, the cakewalk had become an international craze, performed to the new syncopated jazz music by all strata of society. Rich white women were taking cakewalk lessons from black stars like Aida Overton Walker. Some white cakewalkers were blackening their faces, a gesture Pugh reads as combining ridicule of black culture with rebellion against white. African American cakewalkers also appeared in blackface, an ambivalent mask that might play to white stereotypes, exaggerate racial divides, mock white blackface, or perform a mixture of messages. While the racial politics of the cakewalk were ambiguous, “race, and jokes about race, were central to the cakewalk’s meaning” (16).
Minstrel performance gave birth to both the cakewalk and tap, which Pugh describes as “authentically American—born on American soil, products of American cultural clashes” (59−60). Combine the polyrhythmic dances of African slaves with the jigs of Irish indentured servants, and bring the African American banjo into concert with Irish bones and tambourines—this is the mixture Pugh views as quintessentially American, and it is a version of the clichéd “melting pot.” But figures like Bill Robinson emerge from that pot to become stars, transform tap into “a modern, American art form,” and teach artists and critics “that American identity was part black” (30). Robinson gained fame, like many of his predecessors, performing racial stereotypes like cakewalks to “coon songs” (38). But he fought racism by demanding respect, lecturing audiences that misbehaved, sticking up for chorus girls, and supporting performers of all races. Critics compared him to Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes, “the singing prose of Hemmingway or Faulkner,” and the celebrated actor Sarah Bernhardt (46−47). This list demonstrates Robinson’s place in and impact on interdisciplinary modernism, although he does not usually appear as a central figure in modernist studies. America Dancing corrects that oversight.
Pugh also reintroduces black dance, both tap and jazz, to the history of ballet. While Robinson was compared to Nijinsky, the Russian star and his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, took their first dance lessons from black tappers working at a Russian café that hosted variety shows. Nijinsky’s percussive stomps, syncopated rhythms, and primitivism in Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) may have been influenced by those tap lessons. Nijinska included a cakewalk in Impressions...