Q: Why is a “cakewalk” something that’s easy to do? It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?
A: The Dictionary of American Regional English says the term “cakewalk” originally referred to a contest among African-Americans in which “a cake was the prize awarded for the fanciest steps or figures.”
Historians generally believe these contests originated in the antebellum slave quarters of Southern plantations, according to a 1981 paper by Brooke Baldwin in the Journal of Social History.
In the paper, “The Cakewalk: A Study in Stereotype and Reality,” Baldwin notes that former slaves discussed the contests during interviews in the 1930s with researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.
(The interviews were transcribed in what would now be considered heavy-handed dialect, with inconsistent punctuation.)
Louise Jones, an ex-slave from Virginia, is quoted as saying: “de music, de fiddles an’ de banjos, de Jews harp, an’ all dem other things. Sech dancin’ you never seen befo. Slaves would set de flo’ in turns, an’ do de cakewalk mos’ all night.”
Estella Jones, an ex-slave from Georgia, is quoted as saying, “De women’s wor long, ruffled dresses wid hoops in ’em and de mens had on high hats, long split-tailed coats, and some of em used walkin’ sticks. De couple dat danced best got a prize.”
The paper also cites several secondhand reports from the 1950s and ’60s that say the slaves dressed up and paraded around in their finery to mock the plantation owners.
In 1950, for example, Shepard Edmonds, a musical figure from the ragtime era, recounted this description of cakewalks from his parents, who had been slaves:
“It was generally on Sundays, when there was little work, that the slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around. They did a take-off on the manners of the white folks in the ‘big house.’ But their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point. It’s supposed to be that the custom of a prize started with the master giving a cake to the couple that did the proudest movement.”
Neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the Dictionary of American Regional English has any 19th-century citations for the term “cakewalk” used to refer to these plantation contests.
In explaining the lack of such written evidence, Baldwin says in the Journal of Social History that slave narratives publicized by abolitionists generally “concentrated on the negative aspects of slave life and devoted little attention to slave culture.”
However, an 1863 citation from Contributions to the Montana Historical Society alludes to the slave term in what the OED describes as a “transferred sense”: “Around and around that bush we went…. We had a good laugh over our cake walk.”
By the late 19th century, according to OED and DARE citations, “cakewalk” was being used in reference to a strutting or prancing dance modeled after the earlier slave contests.
This new “cakewalk” (also spelled “cake walk” or “cake-walk”) was performed in African-American communities as well as in minstrel shows featuring blacks or whites in blackface.
The OED’s earliest citation for “cakewalk” used in this sense is from the October 1879 issue of Harper’s magazine: “Reader, didst ever attend a cake walk given by the colored folks?”
Oxford cites several other examples, including this one from Americanisms Old and New, an 1888 dictionary of colloquialisms and other usages, by John Stephen Farmer:
“In certain sections of the country, cake-walks are in vogue among the colored people. It is a walking contest, not in the matter of speed, but in style and elegance.”
In commenting on the use of cakewalks in minstrel shows, Amiri Baraka (writing as LeRoi Jones) remarked in his book Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America (1963) on the irony of whites satirizing blacks satirizing whites:
“If the cakewalk is a Negro dance caricaturing certain white customs, what is that dance when, say, a white theater company attempts to satirize it as a Negro dance? I find the idea of white minstrels in blackface satirizing a dance satirizing themselves a remarkable kind of irony—which, I suppose is the whole point of minstrel shows.”
In the 20th century, according to citations in DARE, the word “cakewalk” was also used for various marching or dancing games, as well as for a game similar to musical chairs.
The OED’s earliest example for “cakewalk” used to mean something easy to accomplish is from Coo-oo-ee! A Tale of Bushmen From Australia to Anzac, a 1916 book by John Butler Cooper:
“Whether they would give him victory in a fight that would not be a cake-walk, he did not know.”
However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a much earlier example from The “Fight of the Century,” an 1897 book by George Siler and Lou M. Houseman.
In describing the heavyweight championship bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett, the authors write at one point: “It’s a cake-walk for Jim. … Fitz hasn’t a chance.”
(Fitzsimmons actually won the fight in the 14th round.)
Why did the term for a contest and a dance come to mean something that’s easy to achieve? We haven’t found a definitive answer, but perhaps the people doing a cakewalk made it look easy—at least those who took the cake did.
DARE notes that this “easy” sense of “cakewalk” is similar to a more popular expression, “piece of cake,” which showed up a couple of decades later.
The earliest citation for “piece of cake” in the OED is from The Primrose Path, a 1936 collection of light verse by Ogden Nash: “Her picture’s in the papers now, / And life’s a piece of cake.”
If you’d like to read more, we had a post a few years ago about “piece of cake.”
We’ll end now with a “cakewalk prance” from Scott Joplin’s 1902 song “The Ragtime Dance”:
Let me see you do the rag-time dance,
Turn left and do the cakewalk prance,
Turn the other way and do the slow drag
Now take your lady to the World’s Fair
And do the rag-time dance.