Mar 07, 2014

Pre-Miley, Twerking Was More Than a Dance

By Britini Shaw
For Reporting Texas

With the wag of a tongue and a foam finger, Miley Cyrus made twerking a household word during her 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance. Her rendition would later be deemed a failed attempt at the popular booty shake. But it did shed her “good girl” image and catapulted her into the hip-hop world: She was later featured in the rap song “23,” which has been viewed more than 194 million times on YouTube.

Twerking actually has a history that stretches across continents and goes back for centuries in the African diaspora. For some young African-Americans, twerking is something other than a faddish dance; it is a way to spread cultural and black feminist ideas. For instance, twerking is the focus of a workout class at the University of Texas at Austin, where it is a way to stay fit.

Scholars who study twerking and other forms of African and African-American culture were critical of Cyrus’ performance. One of the critics was Charles Anderson, associate professor of African and African-American diaspora studies and theatre and dance at UT, who called the Cyrus act a form of “cultural appropriation.”

“What Miley Cyrus is perpetuating is a form of minstrelsy and cultural appropriation,” Anderson said. “She doesn’t understand what the dance is and she’s co-opting it for her own benefit, not for the benefit of that in which it comes.”

Anderson, who has 22 years of professional dance experience, said that discussions of twerking shouldn’t be based on Cyrus’s interpretation of the dance, but should take a broader view that includes African-American self-determination and the spaces that African-American women claim for themselves.

“It’s obvious just looking at it that it has African roots,” he said. “Traditional Africans formed the [booty] movement, but it’s of this space and time.”

Anderson’ s dance troupe, Dance Theatre X, emphasizes the importance of African and African-American dance and provides a space for a cultural statement. Much of Dance Theatre X’s choreography incorporates variations of twerking, he said. “Is it a dance for and by African-American women who can determine when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. Or is it a dance that is for the entertainment and pleasure of heterosexual men who want to watch? Who owns the dance?”

Two African-American UT students have determined that they own the dance. Gabrielle French, 22, and Kimari Carter, 21, have created Twerk Fit Clique, an on-campus organization that functions as an occasional exercise dance class.

French, a kinesiology major, dubbed the workout the TwerkOut. Carter came up with the idea and began the workout. French stepped in when Carter went to San Francisco on an exchange program this year.

“It’s a fitness class, but twerking is your way to get fit or way to lose weight,” French said.

The class starts with a light, 10-minute warm-up and then gets into an hour of twerking. The session explores regional variations of twerk. In Chicago, for instance, in Chicago, people do a twerk dance called the “bop.” In Jamaica, they have the “dutty whine.” Carter said students do “transnational booty shaking” in her class.

Carter said her TwerkOut class has appealed Latinas as well as African-Americans.

“I want to create safe places for women all around the world to express themselves and their erotic autonomy,” Carter said.

French said twerking is important because they can be used to empower women through their sexuality and body movement. She said twerking isn’t always sexual.

“When I first think of twerking I think of it as a dance. I think it’s fun,” French said. “It’s based in African-American hip-hop culture.”

French said she can remember twerking at age 6.

“It’s something that we do when we have a good time,” French said. “It’s not some overly dramatized, hyper-sexualized dance that society is making it out to be.”

French said she wants to teach twerkers not only how to do it and embrace their culture, but also to use it “to just empower themselves — whether sexually or whether because ‘it’s my body, and I can do with it as I please.’”

Carter, an African and African-American diaspora studies major, is a self-proclaimed “twerk scholar.” She has studied twerking in Venezuela and writes a blog about twerking. Carter’s twerk video, entered in rapper Juicy J’s $50,000 scholarship contest last year, included an explanation why she wants the money and an expression of her black feminist views against a backdrop of Juicy J’s single, “Scholarship.”

In her video Carter, explained why she twerks and the politics involved. Although she did not win the scholarship, she did receive national attention: Ohio State University professor Treva B. Lindsey showed Carter’s video at a conference, “Gender, Sexuality, and Hip Hop,” last year. After that, MSNBC television show host Melissa Harris-Perry featured Carter on her program last December.

“I twerk to heal myself. I twerk to heal the earth and all of her inhabitants,” Carter said in the video. “I twerk for my community.”