Origins: The Chalk Line Walk as it was originally known in 1850 in the southern plantations later became very popular from 1895-1905 as the Cakewalk with a resurgence around 1915. It origins are in Florida by the African-American slaves who got the basic idea from the Seminole Indians (couples walking solemnly). Many of the special movements of the cake-walk, the bending back of the body, and the dropping of the hands at the wrists, amongst others, were a distinct feature in certain tribes of the African Kaffir dances. The African Ring Shout has a certain tie to this dance as well (see Ring Shout.)
These "Walkers" as they were called, would walk a straight line and balance buckets of water on their heads. Over time the dance evolved into a exaggerated parody of the white, upper class ballroom dancers who would imitate the mannerisms
(namely the promenades and processionals) of the "Big House" (or masters house) that they observed the White's doing. These Slave's would have some fun with such a dignified walking, flirting, prancing, strutting, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hats, done in a high kicking grand promenade. The Master's and their guest found it amusing, while a few plantation owners frowned upon these shenanigans. For their 'Sunday entertainment', the plantation owners started having contests to prove to the other who had the best slave walker which would give the evolution of the Cake being given as a prize..
The idea of the Cakewalk was that of a couple promenading in a dignified manner, high stepping and kicking, mimicking whitey's high society. Some of the better plantation owners would bake a special cake called a hoecake wrapped in cabbage leaf and on Sundays and invite the neighbors over and have a contest of the slaves, different prizes were given but originally it was a Hoecake for the males and molasses pulled candy for the ladies and whichever slave(s) won, would get the cake / Candy ... thus varying terms such as "That Takes The Cake!" (Plus others such as 'It's a Cakewalk' = very easy, fun) and the name "Cakewalk" was now set. The dance grew in popularity even after the Civil War (1861-1865), but it would change and become more grand in style and clothing as time marched on.
The Breakdown, Buck dance, Jigs and the Chalk Line Walk would be mixed when the Minstrel Shows started using the Chalk Line Walk in their acts, a Minstrel parody, mixed, which later would be named the Cakewalk. The Minstrel shows of the time would paint their faces black and at the end of the show would do a "Grand Finale," which often times was the Cakewalk. The dance used little breaks in the prancing and strutting and only to allow the male to show off some dance moves and acrobatic like somersaults (Stearns: Jazz dance) while the woman would clap and admire his antics.
By the 1890's, the now named Cakewalk was the hottest thing around and Charles Johnson & Dora Dean are said to have introduced the Cakewalk in 1893 "The Creole Show", but it was already a featured dance in same show back in 1889. However in 1877, it was actually introduced in the Minstrel Show "Walking for dat Cake" and in 1892 the first Cakewalk contest were held in a New York ballroom hosted by Richard K. Fox (Stearn's says Madison Square Garden, but it wouldn't be built for another 20 years or so, so
most likely it was a building at that location [or maybe Madison Sq. Roof Garden].) Coney Island also had Cakewalk Dance Contests. Williams and Walker inspired a Cakewalk in the play "Clorindy" Origin of the Cakewalk.
The Cakewalk sheet music would also list the March and Two-Step as dance options to the song so white audiences would be interested in buying it even if they did not know the
Cakewalk. It was first introduced upon the Broadway stage by Dave Genaro.
The competition dancers were called "Walkers" and these dance contests grew very big, such as the National Cakewalk Jubilee in New York City as well as others, where the champions would receive gold belts and diamond rings.
There were two categories of contests:
1) the "Grand Straight Cakewalk" (regular type) and
2) the "Fancy Cakewalk," (dressed up type)
the doors would open at 7:00p.m., Contest at 11:00p.m., and dancing would continue till 5:00am. These Cakewalk dance contests eventually would be held in big cities as Tin-Pan Alley would make a fortune off of the dance and the Rag-time music they would produce. There would be literally 100's of these contests given.
Historically, the Cakewalk was the first American dance to cross over from black to white society as well as from the stage (Minstrel shows) to ballroom. The Cakewalk would be the window for other African-American dances to enter white society in the future. Many of the upper class Summer and Seaside hotels would feature a Cakewalk at the end of the season. A man by the name of Dobbins (born in 1812) is said to have first introduced Cakewalk dancers to high society at Turners Hall in Brooklyn in 1866. The cakewalk lead the way for the future evolution of dances and the dancers to evolve with the contests proving invaluable to dancers personal inventions as eventually the dancers could do whatever dance inventions they wanted and at the end would Strut off with their partners.
The Cakewalk eventually died in the 1920's with the Chareston and othe dances, but there were still traces of the Cakewalk in the newer, more modern forms of dance, even the Lindy hop had the Apache and the Cakewalk thrown in as can be seen in the "Shorty George" video clip in "After Seben / At the Jazz Band Ball" video. The Cakewalk music eventually evolved into the birth of Ragtime (around 1899).
The Cakewalks 'high stepping strut' (see strut) would also be adopted by marching bands (originally New Orleans) and later Drum Majors would incorporate the Cakewalk into their routines thanks to John Phillips Sousa who took his marches and cakewalks to London, Russia, France and elsewhere, featuring a "strutting" drummer who would "syncopate" his steps (DeBussey's "Golliwogs" Cakewalk and Georgia Camp Meeting testify to his success abroad.) A later offshoot of the Cakewalk was the Strut (dance), it was used a lot in the Cakewalk's description of later days. The Champion Strut (1954) was a mixture of the Lambeth Walk, Cakewalk and Swing dance.
In Old Ireland, there was a practice of offering a cake to the best Jig dancer on the Sunday get together. These dancers would do a Penny Jig, which the dancer would pay the fiddler a penny after dancing, trying to win the cake. Quoting from Mrs. Lully's Book: "Although the fare of Sunday seldom rises beyond the accustomed potatoes and milk of the rest of the week, some few halfpence are always spared to purchase the pleasures which the Sunday cake bestows. This cake set upon a distaff is the signal of pleasure and becomes the reward of talent; it is sometimes carried off by the best dancer, sometimes by the achiest wag of the company."