Advertisement for a minstrel show. The advertisement shows an image of a cakewalk competition.

In the late 1800s, as minstrel shows began to be large public events, the cakewalk was one of many main events. In one of New York City’s most notorious venues, a large show was to take place. On the evening of March 2, 1895, one of the largest minstrel affairs was held at Madison Square Garden.

What is a cakewalk?

A cakewalk is a competition in which couples dance and compete for a piece of cake, or at times a fully decorated cake. Slaves performed the dance and plantation owners usually judged the competition. The dance consisted of high-legged prancing whilst tilting the head, torso, and shoulders back. Although plantation owners were using the event for their personal entertainment, the enslaved couples were blatantly mocking the ways they had seen white people ballroom dance. The pairs danced in a square with the men on the inside and were judged on their grace, the elaborate turns, and the elegance of the swings when turning the corners. Today, cakewalks are a popular game that is played at carnivals and school events. The game consists of walking in a circle for a chance to win. The term “takes the cake” and “a piece of cake” are two sayings that derived from this pre-civil war competition.

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1895 Cakewalk in New York City

A clipping from New York newspaper The World advertised “The Gardens Big Cake-Walk” which was to be the largest show of its type. The event was organized by matchmaker Jim Kennedy, the National Ethiopian Amusement Company, and president of the Eastern League Pat Powers. Over 50 couples were expected to participate in the cakewalk. Not only was this a cakewalk but other events were to take place such as barrel boxing, a pie-eating contest, and jubilee singers.