TWERKING: FAD OR TRADITION?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a classically trained dancer, received this message on one of her social networking pages:

“I am a 24 year-old white girl who really wants to learn how to twerk/booty pop. I have kind of a big butt (for a white girl) but I am somewhat rhythmically challenged and can’t seem to teach myself from YouTube videos. I really just want to impress my husband for his birthday in November by showing him I can do this, so I’m willing to pay $50/hour to simply teach me.”

If you are like me, the first thing that comes to mind is “wow” followed by lots of laughter. My amusement however, quickly became frustration.

When noticed by white America, our cultural traditions ignite a fascination within many of them. Our traditions become new popularized fads with white audiences and often become exploited as they are recognized as entertainment rather than being considered culturally significant. Furthermore, whites have historically taken the credit for the creative innovations we have contributed to the world.

Eli Whitney did not create the cotton gin, Elvis, the “King” of Rock ‘n’ Roll did not create the genre, the Harlem Shake is not a new dance, and Miley Cyrus did not invent twerking.

In fact, twerking, the African American form of gyrating one’s body in isolated movements, has its roots in Africa. Just like singing, storytelling, clapping, and playing the drums, this form of dance is a form of expression that unites tribes and communities and is often used to celebrate rites of passage and to communicate during war and strife. Many tribes all over the continent of Africa partake in this type of movement. Twerking, which incorporates many of the same movements including the emphasis on the hips and buttocks, is an evolution of our ancient traditions. In essence, twerking, like capoeira in Brazil, “dutty wine” in Jamaica, “jigging” in Dallas, “the snake” in 1930s Harlem, or zydeco in Louisiana, is a hybrid movement used to continue our African traditions in a non-African world—a way of expressing ourselves amidst oppression and remaining connected to our cultural heritage.

It is important for us to recognize our cultural significance and not allow people to exploit our traditions. Moreover, while Miley Cyrus made a mockery of our culture and our bodies (slapping a black woman’s behind a la Hottentot Venus), she was joined by three background dancers who are members of our own community. We also have to stop exploiting ourselves.

I do not condone a woman using her body to attract negative attention, like Miley Cyrus, and I do not deny that this type of movement has been connected to sexual promiscuity, but the question is why is it associated with this and why is it getting so much attention. Twerking is surely not the only mechanism being used by certain women to exploit their bodies. Moreover, this form of dance movement is not unique to women as it has traditionally been used by both men and women. For example, men of the Wodaabe tribe of Nigeria engage in similar movements to attract their future wives. So why is twerking being blamed for sexual immorality in women?

Much of this association with sexual promiscuity is linked to the ideas of western culture and racial stereotypes. Westerners are not known for this type of movement, therefore they condemn it just because it is different from their own cultural traditions. Western culture tells us that the way we behave is inappropriate and inferior, but we are a non-western people living in a western world and we have our own culture.

Additionally, the stereotype of the black “Jezebel,” a sexually promiscuous woman, was used during slavery to justify slave owners’ abuse of their slaves as well as the mulatto children who resulted. The idea of black lusty and seductive women has been used to exploit our bodies, misinterpret our cultural behaviors, and to justify racism and sexism.

Unfortunately, because of these western ideas and racist and sexist stereotypes of black women, there will probably always be people who think black women are hypersexual no matter what we do or do not do.

So should we dismiss the way we dance as highly sexualized just because white America tells us to do so? Or should we recapture our contributions and define them in the same ways our ancestors did? It is time for us to stop defining ourselves in terms of what western society views as cultural acceptable and whether the topic is high culture or low culture, now is the time for us to stop allowing others to exploit it and appropriate it. So go ahead and twerk sumn’ basic.

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