Cakewalk is a traditional African American form of music and dance which originated among slaves in the Southern United States. The form was originally known as the chalk line walk; it takes its name from competitions slaveholders sometimes held, in which they offered slices of hoecake as prizes for the best dancers.
Vaudvillian Tom Fletcher heard the following account from his grandfather, "The cake walk, in that section and at that time, was known as the chalk line walk. There was no prancing, just a straight walk on a path made by turns and so forth, along which the dancers made their way with a pail of water on their heads. The couple that was the most erect and spilled the least water or no water at all was the winner.
Ethel L. Urlin writing in the 1912 "Dancing, Ancient and Modern" stated that "It originated in Florida, where it is said that the Negroes borrowed the idea of it from the war dances of the Seminole...The negroes were present as spectators at these dances, which consisted of wild and hilarious jumping and gyrating, alternating with slow processions in which the dancers walked solemnly in couples. The idea grew, and style in walking came to be practised among the negroes as an art.
The Cake Walk was an adapted and amended two-step, which had been spawned by the popularity of marches, most notably by John Philip Sousa. It has no African counterpart. The Cake Walk was more fluid and imaginative than the established two-step, it was nevertheless a regularized form, more improvisational than its previous form, but highly formalized compared to later dances such as the Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop.
In July 1898 the musical comedy "Clorindy The Origin of the Cakewalk" opened on Broadway in New York. Will Marion Cook wrote ragtime music for the show. Black dancers mingled with white cast members for the first instance of integration on stage in New York. Cook wrote, "My chorus sang like Russians, dancing meanwhile like Negroes, and cakewalking like angels, black angels! When the last note was sounded, the audience stood and cheered for at least ten minutes. This was the finale which Witmark had said no one would listen to. It was pandemonium... But did that audience take offense at my rags and lack of conducting polish? Not so you could notice it!
Performances of the "Cake Walk", including a "Comedy Cake Walk" were filmed by the American Motoscope & Biograph Co.in 1903. Prancing steps were the main steps shown in the "Cake Walk" segment, which featured two couples, and a solo dancer. All dancers were African American. 1903 was the same year that both the cakewalk and ragtime music arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Leaning far forward or far backward is associated with defiance in Kongo. "We are palm trees, bent forward, bent back, but we never break." Another interpretations of these motions were "melting" to the beat, or protecting what is new (leaning forward) with the past (leaning back). The appearance of the cakewalk in Buenos Aires may have influenced influenced early styles of tango.
Dances by slaves were a popular spectator pastime for slaveholders, evolving into regular Sunday contests held for their pleasure. Following the American Civil War, the tradition continued amongst African Americans in the South and gradually moved northward. The dance became nationally popular among whites and blacks for a time at the end of the 19th century. Most cakewalk music is notated in 2/4 time with two alternate heavy beats per bar, giving it an ooompah rhythm. The music was adopted into the works of various white composers, including Robert Russell Bennett, John Philip Sousa and Claude Debussy. Debussy wrote Golliwog's Cakewalk as the final movement of the Children's Corner suite (1908).
The term "cakewalk" is often used to indicate something that is very easy or effortless. Though the dance itself could be physically demanding, it was generally considered a fun, recreational pastime. The phrase "takes the cake" also comes from this practice.
Along the lines of this "easy or effortless" meaning, there is the modern Cakewalk (carnival game) which requires no dancing skill at all to win.
Today, one version of the cakewalk is kept alive by traditional Scottish Highland dancers. The cakewalk is sometimes taught, performed and competed within the Highland Dance community, especially in the southern United States.
In addition to the Highland Dance community, a version of the cakewalk seen in vintage film clips from the early 1900s is kept alive in the Lindy Hop community through performances by the Harlem Hot Shots and through cakewalk classes held in conjunction with Lindy Hop classes and workshops.
On the June 2008 Law School Admission Test (LSAT), a passage discussing the origins of the Cakewalk was featured in the exam's Reading Comprehension section.