A Global Phenomenon

African origins: From New Orleans to Abidjan, the roots of twerking

By Eva Sauphie

Posted on November 19, 2021 17:17

Popularised by music videos and sometimes considered pornographic, this phenomenon has its origins in ancestral Afro-descendant dances and, above all, advocates for a liberation of the body.

“Shake your butt! Did we come here to sit and hide our posterior or to show it off?” says the energetic Patricia Badin, 49, a twerking teacher at the FGO Barbara Centre in the cosmopolitan Parisian district of Barbès.

Short shorts, sequined bras, knee pads tucked under high socks, trainers… The armada of dancers has put on the necessary attire to twist and jerk. The term ‘twerk’ is in fact a contraction of ‘twist’ and ‘jerk’ – two kinds of American dance that originated in the 1960s. It was first used in the song ‘Do the jubilee all’ (1993) by DJ Jubilee, a rapper from New Orleans.

Own the clichés

In front of the mirror, three rows are formed behind the Guadeloupean native, who has been teaching the discipline since 2015. The first pulses of Afrobeat sound. On the tempo, the tushes vibrate, bounce, undulate, create tremors. The field of possibilities for buttock dancing seems infinite. A human circle forms in the middle of the room. Each dancer is then invited to improvise in the centre of the circle, to allow themselves to be carried away by the vibration and percussion. With her eyes closed, Patricia Badin launches the dance crouching on the floor, on her stomach, on her back, but only her buttocks tremble. The show takes on the appearance of an African trance.

“Twerking is a dance of isolation. You move your buttocks or your pelvis separately. The rest of the body is static,” says the dancer. Here, there is no choreography like in the urban music videos you see on YouTube, she warns. The aim is to let go and get the energy flowing. Soon, the ‘booty shake’ pro – another name for twerking – is leaning on her arms and balancing on her head, her hips still active.

Huge smiles play around the mouths of participants, collective energy, applause… The benevolence that emanates from the session is enough to stimulate even the most reluctant. Each participant takes her turn in a free sequence of acrobatics – including a semi-sideways split – at the crossroads between gymnastics and cheerleading.

American singer Miley Cyrus, who has been wrongly credited with inventing the genre since her lewd performance at the Music Video Awards in 2013, can take a hike. “We’ve always seen African women gather in villages and wiggle their butts in loincloths, especially during rites of passage to signify that they are fertile’’ says the woman who has demonstrated twerking as far and wide as the École des Sables in Toubab Dialao, Senegal, and in institutions like the Palais de Tokyo.

Deemed indecent and pornographic, twerking is said to convey a degrading image of women. However, for the visual artist Aïda Bruyère, “these dances are a way for people living in the ghettos to appropriate the clichés that racist whites attributed to them, such as being hypersexualised, being savages”, she says in her book Bootyzine (2018).

Sorority and self-acceptance

Although the word made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-2010s, the definition may make you cringe: ‘A sexually provocative dance using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance’. Yet twerking is based on the principle of sisterhood and self-acceptance. “My mother didn’t dance in short shorts or on all fours,” says Patricia. “But I always saw her wiggling her hips and buttocks. This way of moving has always been part of our gestures, among all Afro-descendants.”

African-American singer Lizzo agrees. “Black women carried these dances through the transatlantic slave trade,” she said in a TED talk entitled ‘The Black history of twerking – and how it taught me self-love’, in August 2021.

“From the ‘ring shout’ (church ritual) to Ma Rainey’s and Bessie Smith’s hips when they sang the blues, to the ‘bounce’ (New Orleans butt dance) and Josephine Baker’s banana dance (…), black people carry the origins of this dance in their DNA, in their blood, in their bones. We have made the twerk the global cultural phenomenon that it is today.”

Both women also agree that twerking has its roots in Africa and is derived from mapouka, an Ivorian dance that originated in the 1990s and was censored by the National Audiovisual Communication Council (CNCA). The ban largely contributed to the spread of the practice throughout the continent and elsewhere.

In Europe, we don’t always understand this very communitarian relationship to dance, but it is fascinating.

However, these African origins remain difficult to prove, according to the Franco-Cameroonian choreographer James Carlès, for whom the movement was born in the early 2000s in Harlem. “Twerking came after mapouka, but the influence of this style is much more visible in coupé-décalé,” he says. “What we can note is that slaves always kept the dances in their bodies to save their souls. [Thus,] in the history of Afro dance in the United States, there has always been a return to Africa. […] You can see in twerking the influence of the Ivorian community in Harlem or a memory of the bodies – or both.”

For the dancer, there is a continuum in all Afro-descendant dances that can be explained by the fact that they simultaneously belong to a community while expressing their singularity. “In Europe, we don’t always understand this very communitarian relationship to dance, but it is fascinating. We find this recurrence in funk and blues, and in twerking too. These are dances that have helped people to reappropriate their bodies and their sexuality.” This explains the success of twerking outside the borders of Africa, particularly in the age of the third generation of feminists and the #MeToo movement.

In search of recognition

For the moment, twerking is not recognised by any federation, unlike pole dancing in France, for example. Although the practice is becoming more widespread throughout Europe, because of courses and workshops, it is still largely associated with lap dancing. Nevertheless, it can be found in unusual places, even in the capitals of Scandinavian countries, within the framework of specialised training.

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