Where would the major performers of today be without women like Aida Overton Walker? She was a multitalented performer excelling not only in dance but in choreography as well as singing. And despite the success of vaudeville acts that focused on performing degrading blackface comedy, Walker was able to excel without having to perform stereotypes of Black women because she was just that talented. Check out five things you should know about the woman looked at as “arguably the most famous female African-American performer of the early 20th century.”
Vintage Photography | Actress Aida Overton Walker | c. 1907. #aidaovertonwalker #actress #vaudeville #vintage #vintagestyle #vintagephoto #vintagefashion #vintageblackglamour #portrait #photooftheday #instaphoto #old #oldphoto #oldschool #pose #swag #style #elegant #glamour #bnw #bw #blackandwhite #dope #blackgirlsrock #myblackisbeautiful #blackhistory #classic
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She Was Part of One of the Few All-Black Vaudeville Acts in the Late 1800s
Born in 1880 on Valentine’s Day, Aida Overton grew up in New York City where her talents were nurtured and flourished. After receiving a great deal of musical training, she started working as a chorus member for Black Patti’s Troubadours, a vaudeville company led by singer Sissieretta Jones. While performances included operatic singing and ballads, Aida also witnessed the prevalent blackface performances and minstrel “coon” songs that the company also did. While working for the company, she met her future husband, George Walker, and his partner in performing, Bert Williams. They were a very popular Black vaudeville act in the late 1800s, and when Aida joined them to be the female lead, she became part of one of the few all-Black acts allowed to showcase their talents in front of White folks on stage. While they might have occasionally performed in blackface, the group danced and sang songs in a way that weren’t demeaning and objectifying.
She Was Called the “Queen of the Catwalk”
Aida was known as the “Queen of the Cakewalk” for her moves, helping to make popular the cakewalk dance. Of course, the cakewalk was a dance from the 19th century that started on slave plantations and mocked the movements of White people. Eventually it evolved into a huge thing where the walker who performed the best or had the most entertaining steps would be awarded a large cake for their talents.
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She Performed in Drag for a While
After years of performing with her husband, Aida had to stand alone on stage when George fell ill, stuttering and struggling with memory loss (Side note: He ended up dying of syphilis before there was a cure for it). While he was battling with his health, Aida started performing both his parts and her own on stage. To pull off Walker’s moves for their work in the show Bandana Land, she dressed in drag. Her performance received great accolades from publications of the time.
She Went out of Her Way to Avoid Portraying Black Women in a Stereotypical Way
After the death of her husband, Aida’s career lagged for a bit. However, it experienced a resurgence after her performance as Salome in 1912 at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre. The biblical character is seen as a symbol of the dangers of female seduction. And while White performers did her dance provocatively, Aida chose to take on the performance in a much different way. Everything from her facial expressions to her actual movements were focused on conveying the emotions of the character. This was important because Aida did not want to help perpetuate stereotypes of Black women as lewd and hypersexual. Her performance was a success and led to more invitations to perform.
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She Paved the Way for the Likes of Josephine Baker
Sadly, Aida lived a short life. She passed away suddenly in the fall of 1914, with the cause of death being kidney failure. She was only 34 at the time. Still, her legacy and the doors she opened paved the way for future performers we have come to know and embrace, including Florence Mills and Ms. Banana Dance herself, Josephine Baker.