Taking the Cake: Black Vaudeville, Dance Competitions and Value


This article is forthcoming.


Article excerpt


This article analyzes the value of cakes, hams, gold teeth, money and other such prizes in formal and informal dance competitions during the advent and heyday of Black Vaudeville. What did it mean for Rubberlegs to win many cakes for his strut or for Leonard Reed to win a Charleston contest while passing for white? What was “wagered” in the buck-and-wing contests held on Wednesday nights by the Smart Set? What does the cakewalk tell us about race and class? When Bill “Bojangles” Robinson arrived in New York and he challenged Harry Swinton (the star of In Old Kentucky) to a buck-dancing contest and won, his career was ignited. Why was this a watershed moment? What did it “cost” to swing hips? To shuffle? To smile brightly? To partner? To do “flash” dancing? Healthy competition led to improvisation, innovation and the codification of technique. Unhealthy competition led to disputes over ownership and economic worth, the end of careers and violence because the stakes were higher than they perhaps appear at first glance. Dance competitions helped create representations of African Americans that still have influence. Spectator also “competed” for door prizes and enticements for building paying audiences with both prizes and promises of displays of virtuosity contributed to the development of black and American dance aesthetics. In this way, an industry was created. Spectators and performers were “betting” on dance as an avenue to citizenship and subjectivity. Identitarian boundaries were pushed by this first generation out of slavery in one of the few professional activities (entertainment) afforded them. In this article, George-Graves unpacks these questions, theories and ideologies to lend insight into the “currency” of moving bodies.