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Originating in the Southern United States, the cakewalk gained popularity In the late 19th century. First called the “prize walk,” the dance was a satirical performance and contest featuring enslaved Africans. The dance performance mimicked the formal dances of their white enslavers with exaggerated movements and humor.  A series of couples would compete in front of a panel of white judges, and the winner would receive a decorated cake as a prize. The cake would have been considered a luxury for an enslaved person. Typically, any display that would make fun of a white person would be regarded as disrespectful and would result in harsh discipline.  However, in the case of the cakewalk, white elites appeared to enjoy the cakewalk as a form of entertainment.

Today, the cakewalk remains a popular game played at carnivals and community events. The modern cakewalk game is similar to musical chairs. Participants follow a numbered path as music plays. When the music stops, the person standing on the number that is called wins a cake as a prize. The cakewalk’s rise to popularity came as emancipation was dawning and was viewed as a symbol of resilience and cultural expression within African American communities. The artistry and showmanship embodied in the dance brought admiration from both white and black audiences.

The dance became part of many white minstrel performances. Minstrelsy was a form of entertainment popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It featured performers, often but not always white, in blackface makeup, portraying degrading and racist caricatures of African Americans. These minstrel shows perpetuated harmful stereotypes and also helped popularize the cakewalk among white audiences. African American performers also helped popularize the cakewalk. Entertainers such as Ernest Hogan, known as the “Father of Ragtime,” and George Walker, a black minstrel, incorporated the dance into their performances.

Today, the term “cakewalk” serves as a pop culture reference denoting something as being “simple” or “easy.” It is believed to pay homage to the original enslaved performers whose artistic expression seemed both graceful and effortless.

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