… It would be decades before most professional critics considered the work of black dancers on its own merits.
Furthermore, other kinds of racial discrimination continued. On the road, African American throughout the first half of the twentieth century could not stay in most first class hotels or eat in most downtown restaurants. Black composers and lyricists were typically paid poorly and were subject to being cheated by mainstream music publishers. Black choreographers who had powerful shaping influence on shows often received less money and public credit than white artistic directors who had small influence and yet nevertheless received substantial compensation and major billing. Finally, financing was hard to find, notwithstanding the proven success of black shows.
Despite these bitter realities, it was during this period that black musicals succeeded in gaining audiences worldwide and permanently changing the way we dance. Black entertainers and managers of the time exuded hope and excitement. Barriers were coming down, and dreams were being realized. American theatre was in the process of being incalculably enriched by black creativity, and by the treasure trove of African cultural arts it brought. Let's see how it happened.
Bob Cole was an African American minstrel performer who had been part of The Creole Show (organized in 1890) before he joined Worth's Museum All-Star Stock Company and then Black Patti's Troubadours. Cole, a multi-talented writer-composer-actor, wrote sketches and skits for both the Stock Company and the Troubadours. 2 For the latter, he created one called "At Jolly Coon-ey Island." The language of his title raised few eyebrows at the time. It simply reflected the generally racist vocabulary black entertainers had to accept and work with in order to draw audiences. After Cole left the Troubadours, he and Billy Johnson expanded the skit into a full-length musical called A Trip to Coontown, which was first performed in South Amboy, New Jersey, in September, 1897. The show then toured successfully for three years, returning periodically to New York to play in successively better theatres, including the Casino Roof and the Grand Opera House. 3
Coontown owed its success to its seasoned players, most of whom had learned their art in minstrel shows- Bob Cole, Billy Johnson, and Sam Lucas, and Mamie Flowers, among others. Minstrel shows had traditionally excluded women, but A Trip to Coontown included them. Both The Creole Show and Black Patti's Troubadours had put women onstage, so Cole was in a position to know how positively audiences could respond to them. One critic called the female dancing in Coontown "pretty and vivacious,"4 and we can imagine its effect on audiences who once had been used to all-male minstrel performances. Cole also had engaged singer-actor Lloyd Gibbs, and later, Sam Lucas for their superb voices and stage experience, and they were instrumental in making some of the show tunes into hit songs. 5 Coontown, the first black-written, produced, and performed musical comedy in New York City, was a triumph.
It was quickly followed by another black musical called Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk. The Cakewalk had been seen on the plantation for generations and had been a comic dance in minstrelsy, performed by white men in blackface. Male couples paraded across the stage, each including a man dressed as a woman and casting sly looks at the audience, who usually roared with laughter. In contrast, the Clorindy cast interpreted the Cakewalk as an elegant dance, with well-dressed men and beautiful women forming grace-
ful couples and moving to ragtime music. The music was written by Will Marion Cook, a classically trained composer and violinist, who had studied in Europe and also had an understanding of black musical forms. Constance Hill notes that his music was "the product of an unprecedented borrowing and blending of melodic and harmonic complexities, which combined syncopation (derived from Africa) and melodic chromatism (derived from Europe )."6
Cook had planned the show around comedy dance team Bert Williams and George Walker, who were at that time performing the Cakewalk at Koster and Bial's music hall and seeing it catch on among members of their white audiences. Eventually, however, Williams and Walker were unable to appear in Clorindy, and Cook got veteran performer Ernest Hogan take the lead role and to help train the dancers. Cook knew what he was doing – some old-timers of show business said that Hogan was the best dancer-comedian of all time.7
The ragtime music was sophisticated, syncopated, and very danceable. Morgan and Barlow explain "ragging" as a way of making traditional European music more complex so as to be more satisfying to black listeners:
The roots of ragtime can be traced back to the practice of "ragging" European dance music, a
technique developed by slave musicians in the antebellum South. Playing banjos, fiddles, and an
assortment of homemade rhythm makers in small ensembles, they would overlay the basic rhythmic
and/or melodic structures of European songs with alternative rhythmic schemes. This was
accomplished by two or more musicians playing the competing rhythmic patterns simultaneously,
or by one musician on a string instrument playing a separate pattern with each hand or with
different finger and thumb combinations to achieve the desired cross rhythms. This polyrhythmic
principle has always been prominently featured in the drumming patterns of West Africa, and the
practice indeed may have come from there. 8
Ragtime music, whose most famous composer was Scott Joplin, had already been brought to full blossom in southern cities like New Orleans and Memphis.
Clorindy opened in the summer of 1898, when New York theatres were hot and stuffy. In the days before air conditioning, many wealthy people left the city during the hot season for vacation homes in the Pennsylvania mountains. With fewer customers in town, there was less competition for theatrical space. Because they were open and breezy, rooftops became popular sites for productions of various sorts. The Casino Theatre Roof Garden was one of the most glamorous, and Cook was able to convince the manager and conductor there to give his show a chance. The first performance began one evening at about 11 pm. Hogan immediately discarded the libretto Cook had worked so hard to persuade the famous black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to write. "A lot of dialogue on an uncovered roof garden after eleven p.m. would have been impossible," Cook later remembered. The decision apparently did not harm the performance, for Cook said, "When I entered the orchestra pit, there were only about fifty people on the Roof. When we finished the opening chorus, the house was packed to suffocation." He added, "My chorus sang like Russians, dancing meanwhile like Negroes, and cakewalking like angels, black angels!"9 Hogan's song "Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd" got ten encores. The New York Times called the performance "sensational,"10 and Cook exulted that the old days of minstrelsy and exclusion were over. The show continued at the Casino throughout the summer and even toured briefly with Williams and Walker in lead roles. For black performers, it was a magical moment in time.
At the time, musicals often went forward without scripts, or with scripts whose plots held the show together in only the loosest fashion. Actors took the stage and ad libbed
many of their lines to move the story forward to the next song or dance routine.'' The songs and dances were the key elements, and in Clorindy they were memorable. "Darktown is Out Tonight" became a hit, even though the sheet music credited "Will Marion" rather than "Will Marion Cook." The way the Clorindy players sang and danced at the same time riveted audiences and was a first for American musical theatre.12 The show's success was not lost on other theatre managers. The Madison Square Roof Garden and Koster and Bial's Music Hall signed up more black acts that summer and the next, including Charles Johnson and Dora Dean, a black cakewalk duo. 13
As a result of both Williams and Walker's stage performance and Cook and Hogan's musical, the Cakewalk swept across the city and then the country, quickly crossing the color barrier into the mainstream market. Song sheets began to feature drawings of whites doing the dance. Hundreds of Cakewalk competitions became popular across the country, including one at Madison Square Garden and another at Coney Island, each with substantial cash prizes.14 Tom Fletcher, who often entertained in the homes of the wealthy, was engaged by Mr. and Mrs. William Vanderbilt to teach them the dance. 15 Years later, Fletcher mused about the Cakewalk, "From the plantation it moved to be taught to and danced by everyone in the mansions of the Four Hundred and the palaces of the royal families."16
The new dance fad had its naysayers, who appeared both appalled by the dance's African origins and convinced that it led to moral decline. The New York World, for exam-
James Smith and the beautiful Marie Sharp appear on this sheet music. Today, we may find
the language of the title offensive, but we must remember that all the words in Clorindy –
script, lyrics, and titles-were written in collaboration by black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar
and black composer Will Marion Cook, two of the most brilliant men of their time. We must
assume they chose their words deliberately to be consistent with the usage of their era and,
most importantly, to find a market for their work.
-ple, depicted the decadence of insurance heir James Hazen Hyde's 1905 costume ball in a cartoon that showed him in a high stepping Cakewalk with a drunken, scantily clad partner.17 Some misunderstood the history of the dance. As late as 1913, Lady Middleton wrote to the New York Times, "We know the cakewalk, which I have seen Negroes dance, was the attempt of colored folk to represent the grand and stately menuet de la cour."18 She apparently did not know the Cakewalk had actually begun in derision of people like herself. Furthermore, the controversy over African American dances was only getting started. For the next several decades, people who claimed to represent decency would condemn black dances and argue that they undermined morality. In the same article that quoted Lady Middleton's letter, for example, another writer who called herself Peeress commented on the new dances by calling them "the various horrors of American and South American negroid origin."
Two of the Cakewalk's primary exponents were Bert Williams and George Walker, whose 1898 run at Koster and Bial's Music Hall had lasted for forty weeks. They then produced and starred in The Policy Players (1899) and got it booked into Koster and Bial's after opening at the Star Theatre. This they followed with The Sons of Ham (1900), which toured for two seasons and garnered bookings at the Grand Opera House and Hurtig and Seamon's Music Hall.19 Both shows were respectable efforts by the young dancer-comedians, and both provided good vehicles for their talent. Aida Overton Walker appeared with them in both, having married Walker in 1899 and transformed the Williams and Walker duo into a trio. The handsome Walkers could perform an elegant Cakewalk, while Williams provided contrast with an ungainly, comic dance that audiences loved.
A DECADE OF SHOWS
In Dahomey (1902) was a major hit musical created by Williams and Walker, who starred in the show with Aida Overton Walker. Its origins lie partly in the early years of Williams and Walker's friendship. They met in San Francisco in 1893, where they decided to put together a vaudeville act, for which they earned $14 per week, billing themselves as "Two Real Coons."20 They also worked at the Mid-Winter Exposition in Golden Gate Park, in 1894, in an exhibit of a Dahomey village, which had been created to give spectators an idea of life in Africa. George Walker reported that the Africans "were late in arriving in time for the opening of the Fair, and Afro-Americans were employed and exhibited… Williams and Walker were among the sham Dahomians."21
After the real Africans arrived, the American pair visited them and were impressed with them. Walker remembered:
We were not long in deciding that if we reached the point of having a show of our own, we would
delineate and feature native African characters as far as we could, and still remain American, and
make our acting interesting and entertaining to American audiences.
Many of the themes from which some of our best lyrics have been written are purely African.
We were the first to introduce the Americanized African songs: for instance, "My Zulu Babe,"
"My Castle on the Nile," "My Dahomian Queen." From the time we commenced to feature such
songs, not only the popularity of Williams and Walker, but that of the colored performer in general
has been on the increase.22
An example in point was their third musical, In Dahomey, set in Africa. 23
It got off to a good start with a road show version. By February, 1903, the show had toured for seven months and was playing at a major Broadway venue, the New York Theatre, between Forty-Fourth and Forty-Fifth on Broadway. It was the first time a black musical comedy had played an important Broadway venue to white audiences. 24 As Woll noted, "the only blacks on the main floor of the house were James Vaughn, the conductor, and the ushers."25 The show received good reviews, partly because of Williams' irresistible comedy, in which he enacted a down-on-his-luck, sad faced character with Walker, a well-dressed dandy on and off the stage, as his straight man. 26
In April, 1903, the cast departed for a tour of England.27 As Jeffrey Green points out, "It was the first time British audiences would have ever seen a musical with an all-black cast."28 There, reviewers liked the production, in spite of the fact it had no Cakewalk and its plot was so loose as to be incomprehensible to audiences. The Daily Mail commented, "What it is about we are unable … to understand." The St. James Gazette said, "Musical comedy is commonly not conspicuous for … well-proportioned plot, but the wildly inconsequential abruptness of the way in which there was suddenly no more of 'In Dahomey ' about 11 p.m. on Saturday had to be seen to be believed."29 British audiences were unfamiliar with the loose, ad-libbed way the actors set up the story, and had little experience with black comedy on stage. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the show was musically exciting and included infectious comedy. By May 23, the Cakewalk had been inserted because of "the number of letters received by the management requesting its introduction."30 Soon the Cakewalk was a featured attraction, and some of In Dahomey's publicity called attention to the dance.
Curious Brits attended the show in droves and loved its American slang along with
its unforgettable music and dance. The production became so popular in London that it attracted the attention of the aristocracy, and in June the company was summoned to Buckingham Palace to perform for the ninth birthday of the Prince of Wales. The Cakewalk was a favorite part of the show ("the King being one of the first to recognize its merits"31), and as a result the children of the royal family were seen Cakewalking on the palace lawn, all glowingly reported by the British press. Partly as a result of this incident, the Cakewalk became popular in Europe.
After he and other cast members met the King and Queen of England, George Walker said, "We were treated royally. That is the only word for it. We had champagne from the Royal cellar and strawberries and cream from the Royal garden. The Queen was perfectly lovely, and the King was as jolly as he could be …. "32 It was a heady experience for the young actor-dancers. After a seven-month run in London, the show toured other parts of England, and the cast gave performances in Scotland. When the cast returned to the U.S. in August, 1904, the show began a forty-week road trip across the U.S. and managers dispatched a second company for more travel in Britain.
Williams and Walker began work right away on an even more ambitious undertaking, Abyssinia (1905), again set in Africa. It could only be described as an extravaganza, with a cast of one hundred, both mock and real animals onstage, an elaborate set including a manmade waterfall, and a large number of songs. Unfortunately, none of these novelties saved it from relative failure. Although positively reviewed, it ran for only thirty performances. Four road companies were assembled to take the show to the hinterlands and help defray some of the enormous expense of putting the production together.
Bandanna Land (1908) was more successful. It also had a large cast, led by Williams and the Walkers, along with the brilliant singer Abbie Mitchell, who sang "Red, Red Rose." Williams performed his famous poker routine and sang "Nobody," a piece that was to become his trademark. Large white audiences attended during the run in New York, and a troupe of nearly one hundred took it on the road. In stereotypical fashion, a Cincinnati reviewer complimented the players for being "natural singers and comedians," adding a statement that would often be echoed by commentators on black shows: there was an exuberance and joy in the singing and dancing that white shows could not equal.
Other shows during the period included Ernest Hogan's Rufus Rastus (1905) and Oyster Man (1907), as well as Cole and Johnson's Shoo Fly Regiment (1906), which toured in Ohio and Pennsylvania in addition to a brief run in New York, and Red Moon (1908), which presented a storyline about both African American and Native American characters.34 Red Moon closed because of poor bookings on the road, and because Cole and Johnson could make much, much better money in Vaudeville. All these productions drew attention and appreciation to black singing, acting, and dancing.
In 1911, J. Leubrie Hill – a former member of the Red Moon cast- presented a skit called My Friend from Dixie in a Brooklyn theatre. It did not make a particularly strong showing. Two years later, Hill brought a new version of the skit, now called My Friend from Kentucky, to a Harlem theatre as part of a show called Darktown Follies. The brilliant song and dance in the show made it a major attraction in the New York theatre season. Riis says of the piece, "its dynamism was strong enough to draw white Broadway theater patrons to Harlem's Lafayette Theatre in droves, the first show to accomplish that feat."35 Like Red Moon before it and Shuffle Along after it, Darktown Follies also included a serious love story about black characters, a plot element that many people had previously assumed white audiences would not accept.
Several new dances in the show were especially exciting, including two tap acts. Eddie
Rector presented a "smooth military routine" in which he tapped elegantly across the stage. Toots Davis is demonstrated two flashy tap steps called Over the Top and Through the Trenches. Over the Top, the Stearnses tell us, "consists roughly of a figure-eight pattern in which the dancer jumps up on one leg and brings the other around and forward beneath it with an almost self-tripping effect. … " Through the Trenches "is a more or less stationary running step," with the dancer "bending at the waist with arms flailing as the outer sides of the feet scrape alternately from front to back."36
Then there was the Texas Tommy, which was both a performance and a social dance. We can trace a sketchy history for it. A black dancer named
Johnny Peters had brought it up from the South to San Francisco where it became popular at Lou Purcell's, a cabaret with black entertainment but a whites-only audience. Peters then traveled to New York, where he danced the Texas Tommy with Ethel Williams at Bustanoby's cabaret on 39th Street in 1912, the year before both joined Darktown Follies.37 The Texas Tommy was a source of the Lindy Hop and, according to the Stearnses, "the earliest example we have found in the vernacular of a fifteen or more years later, the breakaway, or the temporary and energetic separating of partners – a distinctly unwaltzlike and non-European maneuver."38 Little or no visual documentation of the black version of the dance has survived, unless what we see in a short Edison Mutoscope recording from 1902 is an early version of the Texas Tommy.39 In this moving film, called "A 'Tough' Dance," a couple perform a breakaway, moving swiftly from a closed couple position to an open one. Although there is no sound, there is a faintly discernible hop in the step as the partners move across the floor. The violence in the performance (one partner slaps the other) and the shabby clothes they wear seem intended to indicate lowerclass origins for the dance, perhaps a racist signal that it is African American.
Another new dance in the show was Ballin' the Jack, whose name came from railroad slang. "Jack" is a black name for locomotive. "Ballin"' comes from the expression "high ball in," the signal to start the train moving. "Ballin' the Jack" thus means powering up and moving fast. The dance is explained in the words to the song "Ballin the Jack":
First you put your two knees close up tight,
Then you sway 'em to the left, then you sway 'em to the right,
Step around the floor kind of nice and light,
Then you twis' around and twis' around with all your might,
Stretch your lovin' arms straight out in space
Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace
Swing your foot way 'round then bring it back,
Now that's what I call "Ballin' the Jack …. "40
"Do the Eagle Rock" apparently meant raising and stretching out one's arms as one danced. Ethel Williams Balled the Jack at the end of Act 2, when the cast did a circle dance that the audience loved. "For the Circle Dance," the Stearnses write, "the entire company formed an endless chain, dancing across the stage and off on one end, then around behind the curtain and back on stage at the other end- circling continuously, snapping fingers
with a 'tango jiggle,' a 'moochee … slide,' and a 'Texas Tommy wiggle"' – all the while singing Hill's catchy tune, "At the Ball, That's All."41-the entire company, that is, except Ethel Williams, who did a comic version of Ballin' the Jack, much to the audience's delight.