Aida Overton Walker (14 February 1880 – 11 October 1914), also billed as Ada Overton Walker and as “The Queen of the Cakewalk”, was an African-American vaudeville performer, actress, singer, dancer, choreographer, and wife of vaudevillian George Walker. She appeared with her husband and his performing partner Bert Williams, and in groups such as Black Patti’s Troubadours. She was also a solo dancer and choreographer for vaudeville shows such as Bob Cole, Joe Jordan, and J. Rosamond Johnson’s The Red Moon (1908) and S. H. Dudley’s His Honor the Barber (1911). Aida Overton Walker is also well known for her 1912 performance of the “Salome” dance at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre. This was Aida’s response to the national “Salamania” craze of 1907 that spread through the white vaudeville circuit.
Overton grew up in New York City, where her family moved when she was young and where she gained an education and considerable musical training.
At 15, she joined John Isham’s Octoroons Black touring group, in the 1890s. The following years he started her career as a chorus member in “Black Patti’s Troubadours,” where she met her husband. Her early career was defined by her collaborations with Bert Williams and her husband George Walker, the major black vaudeville and musical comedy powerhouses of the era. She and George Walker married within a year of meeting. She first gained national attention in 1900, with her performance of “Miss Hannah from Savannah” in the show Sons of Ham. For the next ten years, Aida would be known primarily for her work in musical theater. Her song and dance made her an instant hit with audiences at the time. She, George, and Bert continued to produce even more successful shows such as In Dahomey (1902), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandana Land (1908). In 1904, after two seasons in England, the group returned to New York. In England, she taught the cakewalk to elite and white society. She was the highest paid and most popular female actress, singer, and dancers of the Williams and Walker Company. Because of her unexpected take on Salome, critical reviews were mixed.
It was in 1908, when Walker first choreographed her own version of Salome. Although Bert Williams saw the Salome craze as a chance to integrate burlesque into the dances in “Bandana Land,” Walker was determined to position herself within the establishment of modern dancers. At this time it was rare for a Broadway musical, especially a Black Broadway show to include modern dance. In her version of Salome, critics emphasized her modest costume, lack of vulgarity and gracefulness. Walker chose to emphasize the dramatic elements over the suggestive in her choreography.
Working alongside her husband, Walker’s career and performances were praised by critics and her successes well known. She was both financially successful and respected by the industry.
Although Aida Walker originally became famous through her partnership with her husband and Bert Williams, her popularity only grew in the years following his death and the end of the Williams and Walker troupe. Shortly after she joined the Smart set company and became a leader of her own vaudeville company. Both were extremely well received. In late 1908, Walker’s husband collapsed on tour with Banana Land and the show had to close in 1909. She left the stage briefly to take care of her husband.
In 1910, she joined the Smart Set Company following the end of the Williams and Walker troupe, of which the performances were very well received. During this time she also began touring the vaudeville circuit as a solo act. In 1911, she performed in His Honor the Barber with Smart Set Company. Although she was billed as a supporting actress, the press would remember her as S. H. Dudely’s costar. The next year she and her own vaudeville company performed, both critics and the audience were more than ever impressed with her work. Walker performed male characters in shows like Bandana Land, in which she took over her husband’s role as well as the role of Chappie in Lovie Dear.
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