Most people say “cakewalk” to mean an easy or simple task, a battle against an enemy that won’t put up much resistance. But originally it was a sadistic old-timey dancing game for slaves. Cakewalks were essentially dance-offs for a chance of winning, yes, a cake. While that sounds delightful, the reality was … less joyful than its name would imply. That’s because it was a party game for slaves – and they didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
I was at the Oscars, waiting to hear if my name was called, and I kept thinking, Cakewalk, cakewalk, cakewalk. I thought, Why is ‘cakewalk’ stuck in my head? And then, as I started to walk up the stairs and the fabric from my dress tucked under my feet, I realized my stylist had told me, ‘Kick, walk, kick, walk.’ You are supposed to kick the dress out while you walk, and I totally forgot because I was thinking about cake! And that’s why I fell.
Yesterday we mentioned the cakewalk in the post on Aida Overton Walker. My elementary school used to have cakewalks at festivals: a group of people would walk around a circle with numbered spaces while music played. When the music stopped, they pulled a number out of a hat, and the person standing on that number won a cake. Fun times! Who knew it holds a place in Black History?
The cakewalk came to national attention at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. There was an exhibit featuring slaves on a plantation singing folk songs and doing a “chalk-line walk.” The slaves would line up and couples would prance down a line or in a circle. The best performers won a cake.
By 1877, minstrel shows had begun including the dance. At the time, it was only performed by men, but eventually women performers were included. The shows and dances were a big success all around the country and even in Europe, as Aida Overton Walker’s trip to England shows. Aida Overton Walker helped to popularize the dance and raise it to a level of respectability.
As a popular social dance, the cakewalk was a competition in which the couples performing the most fancy steps would receive a cake. In the ministrel shows, the cakewalk was exaggerated and goofy, showing the “Black” dancers as attempting to dance like high-society Whites.
But the origins of the cakewalk are on Southern plantations, when slaves would gather to mock the formal ballroom dance steps of their White owners. Eventually, the owners began to organize and judge competitions on the weekends. The Whites thought the dances were just funny slave dances, not realizing the original intent.
The cakewalk was the first social dance craze in the U.S. Was it also one of the first times White society co-opted Black cultural forms? (This reminds me of the Harlem Shake controversy). The cakewalk contributed to the development of jazz and ragtime music. It also attributed to several phrases, like “That takes the cake!” and “Piece of cake”, the latter because of the association with the weekend.