|The Twerk Team, a popular dance duo that appears on YouTube|
Dance has been around since the beginning of time. However, it is the polyrhythmic nature of twerk dances that indicates its African retention, which range from the social/secular dances to aspects of religious/ritual ceremonies evidenced in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States and other regions.
Similarities can be seen in dances like the Mapouka dance in the Dabou region of Ivory Coast, West Africa or the Bel Congo dance, Afro-Caribbean in style. Taken together, these dances and movements embody everyday village life from harvest to hunting as well as life stages like coming of age, courtship, marriage, sexuality, fertility, and funeral; to invoke spirit(s); or carnival celebrations.
Twerking is said to have originated in New Orleans during the hip hop bounce music era in the early 1990s, but African dance in New Orleans also points to its historic Congo Square, a public locale where 18th century slaves would gather on Sundays to sing, dance and play music.
Twerking, then, is indeed a modern social/secular dance rooted in Southern rap/hip hop culture. It likely received mainstream media attention by Miami artist, Luke and the 2 Live Crew’s 1990 album debut, Banned in the U.S.A. further emphasized receiving attention in lyrics and video footage of the Atlanta Freaknik, a large spring break gathering held in Atlanta, GA. Even Kim and Freddie from the TV sitcom A Different World made plans to attend Freaknik in a 1989 episode (although the location was changed to D.C.).
Twerking was further popularized during the hip hop crunk era with Atlanta based artist Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz’s Get Crunk, Who Ya Wit? album debut in 1996. Twerk has been used by artists like Master P and Houston’s Underground Kingz’s (UGK) “Take It Off” in 1999. In 2003, the word twerk was used in Lil Jon’s “Get Low” featuring the Ying Yang Twins. It has promoted and made alternative economies like strip clubs more widely acceptable. There is an official Twerk Team, two sisters based in Atlanta, who have been referenced in songs like Waka Flocka’s “Round of Applause,” which was filmed on location at the Diamonds of Atlanta Premiere Gentleman’s Club.
While many may argue that twerking is misogynistic, and I don’t deny that it is problematic, for many African American women and women of color, the dance is viewed as a form of self-expression and empowerment, and for some, a form of economic security. Twerking has come a long way and is in the process of acculturation. It’s no longer just a thing that’s done in the underground. It has even surpassed the infamous rap video. It’s on reality TV and YouTube. There has been an emergence of pole dancing and pole fitness classes across the country. Women and men even have poles installed in their homes.
In California, some 33 high school seniors were suspended for their “Awesome Twerk” video and just last week Stevie Ryan of VH1’s Stevie TV declared in comedic form that she’s “addicted to twerking…I’m really just a social twerker.” It appears that twerking is not going anywhere anytime soon.
• A notebook on dance -- past and present
Danielle Hall is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.