When we want to undertake a task that may be easily accomplished, we may call it a “cakewalk” or perhaps “a piece of cake.” But the cakewalk itself was no piece of cake. In the antebellum South, plantation slaves would entertain themselves with “prize walks” in which they mocked the stately moves of their masters dancing in a cotillion. This was at first a surreptitious, subversive activity but it soon caught the amused attention of those who were being made fun of.
Soon the “cakewalk” (the prize was generally an elaborately-decorated cake) became a rigorous competition in which the slaves were judged on poise and bearing as they strutted and pranced on a set course, usually a chalked line. If the slaveholders were either (momentarily) magnanimous or obtuse, or if a particularly savage lampoon resulted in punishment, is hard to say. The competition was fierce, but the dancers demonstrated great skill as they glided across the floor with apparent ease.
Cakewalks remained popular long after the Civil War, even after the original purpose was forgotten. The original cakewalk music almost certainly evolved into ragtime. This connection was acknowledged by Scott Joplin: “Let me see you do the rag-time dance,/Turn left and do the cakewalk prance.”What we may take away from all this is that a “cakewalk” is an endeavor that only appears to be easy. It may in fact be a serious matter on which much depends, but requires consummate skill and finesse to bring about. “A piece of cake” hardly describes it!