The popularity of the cake walk among Parisians in the early 1900s is usually attributed to the dance's assumed racial signification. Scholars have argued that the cake walk, owing to its African American origins, was welcomed by Parisians as iconic of a racial "other," a signifier of the primitive, uncultured, and grotesque. This article proposes an alternative reading, setting the standard scholarly line against other, more subtle impressions of the cake walk's cultural import. A consideration of popular response to the dance--on stage, on film, and in the circus arena--reveals Parisian tastes not only for distinct styles of gesture but for American chic, athleticism, and popular participation, as well as the world of the "other." These connotations invite us to consider afresh what is perhaps the most celebrated cake walk of the period, Debussy's "Golliwogg's cake walk" (1908), known particularly for its quotation of Wagner's Tristan. Debussy's piece, I argue, has a more complex significance than that of a mere canvas on which to poke fun at Wagner or a straightforward reference to a minstrel doll. By means of various cultural and aesthetic nuances, it suggests a persona shaped by buffoonery, slapstick, despondency, and irony: in short, a persona identified with that fetish of modernist art, the clown.
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