In mid-February 2022, during Black History Month, several Snopes readers contacted us wondering whether the term “cakewalk” — a phrase that is often used to describe something that is easy or a breeze to do — was rooted in American racism.
Similarly, a widely shared TikTok video posted months earlier attempted to ring the alarm on the word’s history by explaining that “cake walks” were dance performances by Black slaves that mocked the stiff, waltz-style dance moves of their white slave owners.
“White people did not pick up on the shade, and they actually loved it. So they would offer cake as a prize to the best dancers,” the video’s narrator said. “Even though the dance itself was a ‘fuck you’ toward white supremacy, they were still enslaved people who were forced to dance for fucking cake.”
The TikTok user’s interpretation of the word’s origin was largely accurate. For that reason, we gave this fact check a “True” rating.
According to the Smithsonian National Museum of America History’s collection of oral histories from enslaved people, the etymology of “cakewalk” traces back to events on Southern plantations wherein Black slaves would dress up in their finest clothes and parody the mannerisms of their white oppressors. The enslaved people would take turns performing a grand-promenade type of dance — one directly inspired by the European Grand March — though adding twists, high kicks, and other movements from African dances. Plantation owners often served as judges for the dance competitions.
“Their masters often mistook the playful derision for quaint approximations of their dances,” Dr. Nadine George-Graes, the chair of Ohio State University’s dance department, said in a 2009 piece. “[Dancers] stood side by side, linked arms at the elbow, leaned back and pranced about high-stepping and putting on airs.”
The exact location or year of the first cakewalk is unknown, according the museum. As journalist Lakshmi Gandhi wrote in a 2013 piece for NPR, the gatherings were first called “prize walks” — the prize being an elaborately decorated cake — and “prize walk” was the original source for phrases such as “takes the cake” and “cakewalk.”
Regan Shrumm, an art history scholar, wrote in a 2016 article for the Smithsonian:
While it might be assumed that slave owners would punish their slaves for this mocking behavior, in fact, many owners actually encouraged it. According to the ragtime musician Shepard Edmonds, who described the stories of his formerly enslaved parents, ‘They did a take-off on the high manners of the white folks in the ‘big-house,’ but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point.’ Often the white slave owners even assumed the role of presenting the cake instead of the enslaved people choosing among themselves, once again trying to demonstrate their authority.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, minstrel shows — a type of theatrical entertainment that was based on stereotyped depictions of Black Americans and featured white actors in blackface — started featuring cakewalks. The 2016 piece on the Smithsonian Museum’s website continued:
During these performances, the cakewalk became a grotesque event, where the costumes became outrageously colorful and gaudy. The blackface performance presented the dance as a ridiculous and unsuccessful attempt to parallel white culture. Cakewalk imagery was also used on sheet music, advertising, prints, and toys, with African Americans being depicted as cartoonish and racist stereotypes.
By the 1870s African American actors began to perform as minstrels, though often still in blackface. While some African Americans were able to distinguish themselves from the white performers by bringing some humanity to the caricatures, the black minstrels continued to depict racist content.
In other words, minstrelsy in the 1870s popularized the cakewalk, as Richard Kislan described in his 2000 book, “The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater and Gandhi concurred. That was also the era when people starting using the word to describe a task that was easy to do.
“This is not because winning a cakewalk competition was easy,” Gandhi wrote for NPR. “Rather, it was because the dance steps were fluid and graceful. Hard work by the dancers gave the impression of great ease.”
By the late 1890s, the cakewalk was so popular that local championships were being held at New York’s Madison Square Garden, as well as the Paris World’s Fair, and both white and Black people began performing them, Gandhi wrote. Meanwhile, the dance style birthed its own form of music — an early predecessor to ragtime.
“In fact, many early rags are cakewalks, and the cakewalk’s syncopated rhythms directly led to ragtime music’s style,” George-Graves, of Ohio State University, wrote.
Put another way, according to the Smithsonian piece, Black performers attempted to reclaim the cakewalk from how racist minstrel shows depicted it — as such, as ragtime historian Terry Waldo stated, the dance became about “Blacks imitating whites who were imitating Blacks who were imitating whites.”
Gandhi, Lakshmi. ‘The Extraordinary Story Of Why A “Cakewalk” Wasn’t Always Easy’. NPR, 23 Dec. 2013. NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy.
Cakewalk | Dance | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/cakewalk. Accessed 16 Feb. 2022.
Cakewalk | Etymology, Origin and Meaning of Cakewalk by Etymonline. https://www.etymonline.com/word/cakewalk. Accessed 16 Feb. 2022.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Sherman, French, 1912.
Kislan, Richard. The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995.
Malnig, Julie. Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Facebook, et al. ‘Who Takes the Cake? The History of the Cakewalk’. National Museum of American History, 18 May 2016, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/who-takes-cake-history-cakewalk.