A cakewalk is a form of competitive recreation that has its roots in slavery, and a modern sanitized version is practiced in some regions of the United States. The name comes from the cakes or slices of cake that were given out as prizes to the best performers, and it also contributes to the colloquial forms of “cakewalk” or “piece of cake” for an easy task. In actuality, the practice was probably physically demanding and could be humiliating in some cases, although it would have been a stark contrast to hard field labor. Rather than being a spontaneous gathering, it would have been an event organized by slave owners for their own entertainment.
The basic concept of a cakewalk is that dancers compete, usually in pairs, and the pair with the fanciest steps earns a prize. Often, a line would be drawn for the dancers to follow, leading to the other name of a cakewalk, a “chalk line walk.” During the slave era in the United States, slave owners would dress their slaves in exaggerated costumes suggesting the clothing worn by whites, and order the slaves to dance. The dancers usually performed in a bumbling fashion that parodied the elaborate grace of European dances, and also added aspects of traditional African dance. At the end of the hammy performance, the slave masters would distribute cakes to the dancers as a reward.
Although a cakewalk could be viewed as an opportunity for slaves to mock their masters, in actuality it was probably an unpleasant and humiliating performance for the slaves. However, the experience did contribute to three important aspects of African American arts: minstrel shows, music, and dance performance. The practice first reached popular society through black minstrel shows of the 1800s, and the syncopated, unusual music that accompanied the cakewalk laid the groundwork for ragtime, jazz, and all the music that followed. The elaborate and physically demanding dance moves can also be seen in modern dance performance, particularly by African Americans.
In the modern era, the cakewalk is usually performed in a different way. Competitors waltz or walk slowly around a set of marked squares, and stay where they are when the music stops. Cakes are awarded to individuals stopping on certain squares, making it a game of luck and chance that is somewhat similar to musical chairs. Typically, this type of cakewalk is part of a charity event, with competitors paying for the privilege to play, and the charity in question donating cakes to the winners.