By Nicole Emmanuel
When you hear the term “cakewalk” used today you think the task at hand is being referred to as ‘easy’. Right? Well, its modern-day definition is not where it began. In fact, it came from a couple’s dance created by African Americans to imitate the Seminole Indians, known as the chalk line walk, and progressed into a parody of the upper white class.
Pre-Civil War, in the 19th Century, chalk the line advanced into the cakewalk, also known as the “Prize Walks,” which were held on plantations. These get-togethers were for the sole purpose of servants and slaves to mock their masters. The slaves and servants were to dress in their best, and with the intention to mock the mannerisms of the aristocrats; in fact, they were encouraged to, it was the entertainment. These get-togethers took place in the masters “big house,” of the plantations, and the master would serve as a judge. The cakewalk was a form of comical enjoyment; slave owners would gather their servants and slaves to see who had the best ‘slave walker’ at the end of it all.
Couples would line up and form an aisle and down through the middle each couple would take their turn mimicking the mannerisms of the upper-class white people. In a theatrical way, the couples would strut, bow, bend, flirt, and high-step, just to list a few, they would parade around the ballroom. All the while, their masters were the judges and the guests were merely entertained.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “takes the cake.” The winner of the cakewalk won the prize of an elaborately decorated cake. But more than being a winner of a cake, the servants and slaves were enrobed with fine clothing and allowed to embrace upper-class mannerisms. Fondly, they were no longer slaves in that moment, they were the stars of a show. But I’m sure you wonder why masters would ever consider such an event to be entertainment; wouldn’t that cause the master to have lost credibility with his servants, to be laughed at? But because he became the master of ceremonies, and at the end of it all the master got to choose the winner, he took back the authority and reduced tension.
By 1870, the cakewalk was a popular feature in the minstrel show. The extravagant nature of the mockery was perfect for the Broadway-style performances that entertained with the physical and hammy humor of these stage shows. The performers were known to act as goofy and as bumbling as possible. During this era, “cakewalk” began to lose its original meaning of black slaves mocking their superiors. It was then when cakewalk began to represent a way to describe an accomplishment with ease or simplicity. Still one would wonder how it got its metaphorical connection. It was because the dance steps were done with such fluidity that it gave the impression of ease.
In the 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson has a character describing attending a cakewalk during the Reconstruction era:
“Then the floor was cleared for the cake-walk. A half-dozen guests from some of the hotels took seats on the stage to act as judges, and twelve or fourteen couples began to walk for a sure enough, highly decorated cake, which was in plain evidence. The spectators crowded about the space reserved for the contestants and watched them with interest and excitement. The couples did not walk round in a circle, but in a square, with the men on the inside. The fine points to be considered were the bearing of the men, the precision with which they turned the corners, the grace of the women, and the ease with which they swung around the pivots. The men walked with stately and soldierly step, and the women with considerable grace.”
Is there still a modern day stigma of the “cakewalk” representing entertainment by method of the lowly black servant and slaves? Maybe not.
Watch a video of The Minstrel Show: “CakeWalk” here.
Read more of the original story via: www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy