Where Do “Cakewalks” Come From?

Defense Policy Board member Kenneth Adelman has taken heat for predicting that the war would be a “cakewalk” for the United States. Where does the term cakewalk come from, and why is it synonymous with “easy”?

The cakewalk was originally a 19th-century dance, invented by African-Americans in the antebellum South. It was intended to satirize the stiff ballroom promenades of white plantation owners, who favored the rigidly formal dances of European high-society. Cakewalking slaves lampooned these stuffy moves by over-accentuating their high kicks, bows, and imaginary hat doffings, mixing the cartoonish gestures together with traditional African steps. Likely unaware of the dance’s derisive roots, the whites often invited their slaves to participate in Sunday contests, to determine which dancers were most elegant and inventive. The winners would receive cake slices, a prize which gave birth to the dance’s familiar name.

After Emancipation, the contest tradition continued in black communities; the Oxford English Dictionary dates the widespread adoption of “cakewalk” to the late 1870s. It was around this time that the cakewalk came to mean “easy”—not because the dance was particularly simple to do but rather because of its languid pace and association with weekend leisure.

The cakewalk’s fame eventually spread northward, and it became a nationwide fad during the 1890s. Legendary performers Charles Johnson and Dora Dean were the dance’s great popularizers, and cakewalk contests were a staple of Manhattan nightlife around the turn of century, for whites as well as blacks. Early ragtime songs, with their trademark syncopated beats and brassy sounds, were often known as cakewalk music. (Click here for samples of cakewalk tunes.)

Cakewalk contests also gave rise to two other well-worn clichés—”That takes the cake!” and “piece of cake.” The latter phrase, which also means easy, is believed to have first been used in print by humorist Ogden Nash in The Primrose Path.

Southern natives, especially those who grew up attending church socials and PTA fund-raisers, often have a very different notion of cakewalk’s definition. To them, a cakewalk is a contest like musical chairs, in which participants walk around circle marked off with numbers. When the music stops, the contestants freeze and an emcee calls out a number; whoever’s physically closest to that numbered slot on the loop wins a sugary treat.

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Thanks to Daniel Smith for asking the question.