Exhibition “This Ain’t No Cakewalk” generates conversation on race and identity

Student dancers pose in the University Art Gallery. Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

By Szonja Szurop
Executive Staff

The University Art Gallery recently hosted an opening reception for the exhibit “This Ain’t No Cakewalk,” with visual artist Thom Heyer and musicologist César Leal. The event examined topics of race, identity, and power through the talks of the contributing artists and Professor Woody Register (C’80), the director of the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.

César Leal, as a musicologist and the artistic director of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra, has long been studying race, class, and gender relations in music. He dug deeply into the cakewalk tradition and the process of it getting codified and translated into composed music. His attention was drawn to the similarities of the genre with the Vogue Balls of the 80s and he reached out to his friend, visual artist Thom Heyer, expert of the New York drag ball scene to propose a collaboration.

Thom Heyer, New York-based costume designer formerly assisted on the pilot of the TV series “Pose”, which set in 1987–88, looks at the segments of life and society in New York with a special focus on the drag ball scene. This experience became the partial inspiration for “This Ain’t No Cakewalk”, but of course there was still a lot of tough questions to be considered.

Heyer narrated his concerns in a panel discussion about the exhibit: “First of all, I asked myself if I even have the right to process and use such a racially charged practice as the cakewalk. Then I thought about my own situation as a queer man. Would I be happy if my story was retold by someone else less related to the topic? If it was with the proper attitude and respect, yes – so I decided to work on the project.”

An unusually big crowd gathered in Convocation on Friday afternoon to listen to the speakers and view the final project, featuring the dance performance of Assistant Professor of Dance, Courtney World, and her students. The event started with the speech of Professor Shelley MacLaren, Director of the UAG, who thanked the hard work of all contributors of the exhibit then gave the floor to Register.

Register shared the details of his research in the Sewanee Archives, during which he found several pieces of evidence of the cakewalk tradition here on our campus. Although minstrels usually occurred outside of the South, Sewanee hosted performances of this kind from 1874 until the early 20th century. Both students and faculty (even Vice-Chancellors) participated in the shows, going to “Darktown,” Sewanee’s black populated part or visiting the Sewanee Minstrel Club’s night events for some entertainment.

After Register’s commentary, the audience’s attention was turned to Europe, especially French cakewalks of composed music through Leal’s lecture. The Conductor of the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra described how the cakewalk music was codified and how its movements got exaggerated for the use of French Rococo.

The biggest attraction of the afternoon was a spectacular music and dance performance with Thom Heyer as Master of Ceremonies. The excited crowd was broken up into smaller groups, then was led into the UAG’s exhibition space to see Assistant Professor of Dance, Courtney World’s choreography. Everyone stood with bated breath, captivated by the colorful lights, authentic but organized movements and the creative use of the props.

“I thought the exhibition and the performance were phenomenal,” said Lillian Eells (C’22). “The performance especially amazed me, it was fascinating and chilling. I’d recommend everyone to see it if they have a chance.”

The exhibition “This Ain’t No Cakewalk” runs through the 13 of April in the UAG, where a QR code is located for viewing the video recording of the performance.