Cake Walk Performed by Cirque Nouveau (1905)
Alternate Title: Le Cake Walk du Nouveau Cirque
Another very short dance film by Alice Guy, in this case so short that I question whether the entire film has survived. Nonetheless, it does provide some possible insight into the entertainment interests in France at the time.
For the first few seconds, a black man and woman dance together on a stage. After a jump cut, they are joined by several more people, some adults, some children, mostly black but some white, who dance in a sort of line like a conga line together. It cuts off with them dancing.
This movie is only thirty seconds long. In her early days, Alice Guy was working with strips of film about the same length as that used by the Lumière brothers: about 50 seconds to a minute, depending how fast it is projected. More recently, we’ve seen movies from 2 minutes to five or more, but never less. I strongly suspect that this movie is just a surviving clip from a longer dance sequence.
When I first saw the dancers, I thought I was seeing white people in blackface, which was certainly common at the time. It was the presence of the children that first made me question this. You can see their arms, which are the same color as their faces, which no one ever seems to think of doing in a blackface performance. This made me re-watch the film a couple of times and try to see the adults more clearly. It’s actually hard to tell, but I think these may be black people. Either way, the cake walk is a kind of co-optation by white culture of a traditionally black dance. As I understand it, it originated on Southern slave plantations as a kind of parody of “refined” white ballroom dances, and was eventually incorporated into minstrel shows, mocking black people for dancing funny while missing the original intention. In France, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was taken as a kind of exotic, American import, as jazz would later be. One thing I will say is that it makes the cake walk look like fun!
Director: Alice Guy
Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)
Run Time: 30 secs
You can watch it for free: here (incomplete).