From the abstract of the article “Debussy’s Cakewalk: Race, Modernism and Music in Early Twentieth-Century Paris,” by James Deaville, volume 2, n° 1, janvier 2014 of La Revue musicale OICRM*:
Between November, 1902 and January, 1903, Paris experienced its first tastes of the danced cakewalk through the performances of two American touring ensembles: “Les Elks” and their troupe of black and white dancers appeared in the revue Les Joyeux Nègres at the Nouveau Cirque, while the “Florida Creole Girls” [link added]—seven African-American women—performed the cakewalk at the Casino de Paris. Within a matter of weeks the dance became the latest sensation of the capital, as reported in Paris qui chante of January, 1903, although not without serious dissension. It was upon this field of social and cultural contestation that Debussy entered into the world of syncopated Americanism with Golliwogg’s Cake-walk from the Children’s Corner (1908).
(above) n°s 142/5, 142/8, and 142/7 from the set of ten c. 1903 French S.I.P. ** postcards, series n°142: “Le Cake-Walk, Dansé au Nouveau Cirque, Les Enfants Nègres,” featuring juvenile brother and sister dance team Rudy and Fredy Walker. The complete set of ten postcards can be found on my page Rudy and Fredy Walker, c.1903 postcard series “Le Cake-Walk.” On that page you will also find excerpts from a biographical sketch of the Walkers by Dr. Rainer E. Lotz.
From the biography of the Walkers by Dr. Lotz:
Ruth “Rudy” and Frederick “Fredy” Walker (31 Aug. 1891–after 1928) and (9 Nov. 1893–May 1977) [respectively], known as The Walkers, song and dance entertainers and actors, were both born in Chicago. It appears that at some time in 1902 the two juvenile dancers, brother and sister, traveled to Europe in the company of their mother, Ella Walker, herself an artist, born in Chicago in 1960 or 1964, according to her own conflicting statements.
That they traveled with their own mother is mentioned in June 1903 and again in the winter 1904/1904 in Vienna, December 1906 in Stockholm, in November 1907 in Berlin, and again in February 1908 in Copenhagen. Billed as “Les Enfants Nègres,” their presentations of the cakewalk dance attracted a lot of attention at the Nouveau Cirque at Paris and paved the way for a long career in Europe. They became so popular that they inspired a composer, a sculptor, and a movie film director, as well as cartoonists.
In his brief biography of the Walkers, Dr. Lotz indicates that there was a short film produced featuring Rudy and Fredy Walker (as “Les enfants nègres”), and several other cakewalk artists, performing on the stage of the Nouveau Cirque:
It was presumably the French Pathé company that produced a short film featuring the cake walk performances by both black and white artists on the stage of the Nouveau Cirque. All the artists that can be seen in the film also had a series of postcards devoted to them. They are “Les enfants nègres,” with ten postcards in series 142 (by early 1904 motifs of the original French series 142 were marketed in the United States by Franz Huld, Publisher, New York, in their series III “Cake Walk—Negro Dance”), “Les Soeurs Pérès” from Spain (postcard series 143), “Les Nègres” from the United States (series 144), and “The Elks”, also from the United States (postcard series 145). Charles Gregory also had his own series of postcards, but he is not identified by name and the cards simply state “Nègre Joyeux.”
Clips from the “short film” described by Dr. Lotz above are combined in the following video. Except that the clips come from a series of five short films, not one, and they were made by Louis Lumière, not the French Pathé company as suggested by Dr. Lotz.
The index from a page of the book Catalogue des vues pour cinématographe, by la Société A. Lumière et ses Fils (Lyon, 1907) shown in the image above indicates that the title “Le Cake-Walk au Nouveau Cirque” used by the video provider refers not to a single film but to a series of five Louis Lumière short films, numbered sequentially 1350 through 1354. Most, if not all, of the performers in the films were evidently — see the quote from Deaville’s abstract above, and the postcards above and below — members of a troupe of dancers performing at the Nouveau Cirque in the revue Les Joyeux Nègres at about the same time the films were made. The description under the index confirms that, as Dr. Lotz says, the films were shot on the stage of the Nouveau Cirque: “Ces vues ont été prises au Nouveau Cirque à Paris.” Of the five dance teams, only the Elks are mentioned by name in the index, but four of the dance teams in the film series can be readily named by matching each with a corresponding postcard series, while the fifth dance pair (Lumière n°1352) is not so easily identified.***
Dating the Lumière “Le Cake-Walk” film series:
- Though the video provider dates the “film” 1902, each of the five short films is dated 1903 in a comprehensive chronological catalog of restored and digitized Lumière films at the website of les Archives françaises du film.
- A page on the series at Catalogue Lumière dates each film 15 March 1903 (though each is also dated “hiver 1902-1903”). The description of the series provided by Catalogue Lumière is adapted from that in the 1907 Catalogue des vues pour cinématographe.
Internet Movie Database gives the length of one of the films (“Les Elkes champions du Cake-Walk,” dated 1903) as 1 minute. This is the only one of the five films listed in the Louis Lumière filmography at IMDb. Note, however, the description under the Catologue index which says, “La longeur de ces vues varie entre 21 et 25 m.” (The length of these short films vary between 21 and 25 m.). Various sites indicate that first film screenings of Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1895 consisted of films which were each 17 meters long. Each film ran for approximately 50 seconds when hand cranked through the projector (though the duration of content varied between 38 and 48 seconds). If we use 50 seconds per 17 meters as the standard, then the five short films of “Le Cake-Walk au Nouveau Cirque” would each be between 61.8 and 73.5 seconds in duration. This agrees pretty well with the overall length of the five clips combined in the video, since it is apparent in places that some frames might be missing.
The dance pairs in the film series “Le Cake-Walk au Nouveau Cirque” include:
- n°1350…….“Les Nègres,” a team which consists of two men, the taller one in drag
- n°1351……. “Les enfants nègres,” siblings Rudy and Fredy Walker — The title of the film “Négrillon,” means “black children”
- n°1352……. Unidentified; the male dancer doesn’t look like the images of Charles Gregory found in the aforementioned “Nègre Joyeux” postcard series***
- n°1353……. “Les Elks” (spelled “Les Elkes” in the 1907 Lumière catalog, but “Les Elks” in their postcard series)
- n°1354…….“Les Soeurs Pérès” — sisters Jeanne and Nina Pérès, from Spain; they are eventually joined by the other eight dancers in a finale
In the video, Rudy and Fredy Walker are the second cakewalk team to appear. Their extraordinary performance begins at about 57 sec. During the routine by the fourth team, the Elks, while the three teams who have already performed are grouped at the rear of the stage (upstage), Rudy Walker is seen lifting her arms defensively and flinching a couple of times as the wildly flailing cane of the male member of the Elks appears to come dangerously close to her head. Evidently anticipating further threat, she quickly changes her position, and then immediately begins blowing two-handed finger whistles (wolf whistles) toward the Elks. Moments after she begins whistling, the dancer in the top hat on the far left and she briefly engage in what seems to be a serious shoving match.
Dansé au Nouveau Cirque postcards, selected
Les Nègres, series n°144 — n°s 144/4 (left), and 144/6 (right)
(below) Les Elks, series n°145 — (clockwise from top left) n°s 145/1, 145/2, 145/3, 145/8
(below) Les Soeurs Pérès, Jeanne and Nina Pérès — series n°143 (clockwise from top left): n°s 143/8, 143/7, 143/6(?), 143/3, and 143/5; the last two are tinted
(below) Nègre Joyeux — Charles Gregory, unnumbered series — I don’t recognize the unidentified man in Lumière n°1352 as the same person seen in the “Nègre Joyeux” postcard series
See my index on Rudy and Fredy Walker:
* l’OICRM = l’Observatoire interdisciplinaire de création et de recherche en musique
** S.I.P. = Societe Industrielle de Photographie, the publisher
*** However, the female dancer of this pair resembles one shown in the center of page 7 of the 31 January 1903 issue of the revue Paris qui Chante (1ère année, n°2), possibly dancing with Charles Gregory. The issue devoted its cover and four full pages to the cakewalk, focusing upon “l’origine et les procédés” of the art form.