The dance was invented as a satirical parody of the formal European dances preferred by white slave owners, and featured exaggerated imitations of the dance ritual, combined with traditional African dance steps. One common form of cakewalk dance involved couples (one male and one female, with their arms linked at the elbows) lined up in a circle, dancing forward alternating a series of short hopping steps with a series of very high kicking steps.
Dances by slaves was a popular spectator sport for slave owners, evolving into regular Sunday contests held for their pleasure. Following the American Civil War, the tradition continued amongst African Americans in the South, and gradually moved northward. The dance became nationally popular among whites and blacks for a time at the end of the 19th century. The syncopated music of the cakewalk became a nationally popular force in mainstream music of the USA late in the century, and with growing complexity and sophistication evolved into ragtime music in the mid 1890s. The music was adopted into the works of various musicians, including John Philip Sousa and Claude Debussy, the latter of whom wrote "The Golliwog's Cakewalk".
The term "cakewalk" is often used to indicate something that is very easy or effortless. Though the dance itself was often quite demanding, it was generally considered a fun, recreational pastime.
The Cakewalk is also an amusement park ride; as well as a game played at carnivals.