The Origins of Twerking: What It Is, What It Means, and How It Got Appropriated

"Twerking" isn’t new. Its ubiquity may seem sudden, but mainstream media's merely catching up to something that’s existed in black global culture for years.
Publish date:
August 30, 2013
cultural appropriation, miley cyrus, twerk

I’ve seen variants of twerking my entire life. I remember watching the elderly women dance at the predominantly West African church I attended growing up. If the right “praise” song was sung, they’d grab a white handkerchief and dance their way to the front of the church. They’d rotate their hips and bounce their bums until they were barely above the ground.

In essence, their core movement was the same as twerking -- all in the ass and hips. It’s rhythmic and complex, the footwork’s intricate and even though the body is blending different rhythms, it all manages to flow like water.

The roots of twerking are rich. Variants of the dance exist in most places where there’s a high concentration of people of African descent. Its current iteration is commonly associated with the New Orleans bounce scene, however growing up in London I immediately associate it with the Dancehall scene.

If people took the time to explore the root of what’s been dubbed as the “twerk,” they’d realise its origins lie in West Africa. It’s strikingly similar to the Mapouka dance from Côte d'Ivoire, a dance done by women that focuses on the buttocks. It’s existed for centuries.

Perhaps twerking doesn’t have the technical depth or chronicled history of ballet. It isn’t viewed as a dance scholarship worthy discipline like tap. However, it has an equally interesting history. And when done properly, it takes tremendous skill and attention.

If we view twerking through a Western prism, we’ll interpret it as being sexual, scandalous and controversial. However when you place it in its original context you’ll realise it’s a cultural expression of joy, with its function being primarily celebratory rather than for sexual provocation. Growing up, I saw it most frequently performed during joyful occasions -- family gatherings and weddings. There was nothing scandalous about it, it was simply dancing.

Basically "twerking" isn’t new. Its ubiquity may seem sudden, but mainstream media's merely catching up to something that’s existed in black global culture for years. And now, sadly, twerking has been branded, and is now being fetishized and ghettoised.

As we all know, Miley Cyrus was the conduit that brought twerking to the mainstream consciousness. This is unsurprising. The world is enamoured with black culture and corporations know this. However, they’d much prefer to sell and explore the black cultural experience using white faces.

A few months ago, Cyrus uploaded a YouTube video wearing a onesie and twerking to a song called “The Wop.” Frankly, she can’t really twerk. Miley can’t move like the Twerk Team (who’ve accumulated millions of views on YouTube and a significant underground following).

As a result, Miley's recent MTV VMA’s performance was a master class in how to become an unintentional comedy masterpiece. She “twerked” badly and stuck her tongue out. It was weird and awkward.

But Miley Cyrus’ cleverly marketed hyper-sexualisation tour doesn't trouble me. If that's her expression of agency, let her do as she wishes. For me, the most disturbing thing about Miley’s performance was the use of black women as props.

I doubt Miley grasps what she's doing. Miley thinks she's just "turning up" with some "cool" black girls behind her. She doesn’t understand the politics of race and gender at work while she gets to live out her beautiful capitalist fantasy surrounded by colorful props. I doubt she grasps intersectionality and how it means women of color experience oppression at an intensity that white women don’t.

She certainly didn’t feel me wince as she slapped a shapely black woman’s behind -- a woman she happens to employ. That's what wealth and privilege do, they inoculate you from feeling the acute pain oppressed groups live through daily.

Wealth and privilege also mean Miley can misappropriate a tiny element of the black cultural experience for profit and shock value, while the originators get none of the credit or capital. She's not the first and won't be the last. Is this to say that Miley is trying to be black? Of course not. A construct as complex as blackness cannot be compressed into a dance move, attire and acts of rebellion. To say such would be myopic.

It’s impossible to “become black” via behaviour and if there were some procedure to become black, I’m sure Miley wouldn’t undergo it. That would mean she’d be exposed to the systemic prejudice that comes with being black -- that’s too cumbersome and no fun. Instead Miley picks the parts of black culture that suit her agenda and tickle her taste buds.

Eventually, she'll get bored.

That’s how brief periods of fascination with exotic things work. They’re exploited for profit, social clout and cool factor, then discarded. A bit like that time when people wore bindis as a fashion statement. That Chinese calligraphy tattoo on your lower back that you’re embarrassed to show now. All those Asian-inspired clothes from the 90s that you donated to your local thrift store. When all is said and done, the media will get tired and people will grow bored.

But before you get tired of twerking or whatever the newest ethnic inspired fad is, trace its roots. Find out what it truly means to people and how it evolved. Respect the rich cultural heritage it draws from, and remember the people who kept it alive long before it was trendy.