Society

From Abidjan To New Orleans, Shaking Out The Origins Of Twerking

Popularized by raucous music videos, sometimes considered quasi pornographic, this phenomenon has its origins in the ancestral Afro-descendant dances and advocates the liberation of the body.

Photo in black and white picturing a group of twerking.

A Twerk dance class in Mexico City.

Eva Sauphie

PARIS — "Make your butt jump like a pancake! Did we come here to sit and hide it or to show it?"

Patricia Badin, 49, a particularly energetic twerking teacher, is leading a class at the FGO Barbara Center located in the vibrant Parisian district of Barbès: micro-shorts, sequined bras, sneakers, knee pads slipped under high socks — the armada of dancers sport the de rigueur outfit to do their twerking.


"Twerk" is in fact a contraction of "twist" and "jerk," two American dances popularized in the early 1960s — and the term was used for the first time in the 1993 song "Do the jibelee all" by DJ Jubilee, a rapper from New Orleans.

Making clichés your own

Facing the mirror, three rows are formed behind Badin, a native of Guadeloupe who has been teaching twerking since 2015. The first pulsations of Afrobeats resound. On the tempo, the tushes vibrate, bounce, undulate, create shakes. The range of possibilities for the buttocks dance seems infinite.

A human circle takes shape in the middle of the room. Each dancer is then invited to improvise in the center, to be carried by the vibrations of the percussion in freestyle movement. With her eyes closed, Badin opens the dance on the floor, squatting, on her stomach, on her back. But only the buttocks tremble. The show takes on the appearance of an African trance.

"The twerk is a dance of [bodily] isolation. You move the buttocks or the pelvis separately. The rest of the body is static," explains Badin. Here, there is no choreography like in the urban music videos that we see on YouTube, she warns. The goal is to let go and get the energy flowing. Soon, the booty shaking pro is leaning on her arms and balancing on her head, hips still active.

Smiles hang on the lips of the participants, collective energy, applause. The goodwill that emanates from the session is enough to stimulate the most skeptical. Each dancer has their turn to show off a freeform sequence of acrobatics — half side splits included — at the crossroads between gymnastics and cheerleading choreography.

DJ Jubilee "Jubilee All"

Sisterhood and self-acceptance

We won't even considered American singer Miley Cyrus, who has been wrongly credited with inventing the genre since her explicitly lewd performance on the stage of the Music Video Awards in 2013.

"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 Badin, who has demonstrated twerking as far away as the École des Sables in Toubab Dialao, Senegal, and in institutions like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

The Oxford dictionary definition may make you cringe.

Considered by some as indecent and even pornographic, twerking is sometimes charged with perpetuating degrading images of women. "These dances are a way for people living in the ghettos to appropriate the clichés that racist whites attributed to them, such as being hyper-sexualized, being savages," visual artist Aïda Bruyère wrote in her 2018 fanzine Bootyzine.

While the word made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary several years ago, the definition may make you cringe: "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

Yet, twerking is based on "the principle of sisterhood and self-acceptance," Badin says. "My mother didn't dance in short shorts or on all fours. But I've always seen her wiggle her hips and buttocks. This way of moving has always been part of our gestures, among all African descendants."

African roots

A similar sentiment was shared by African-American singer Lizzo in a 2021 TED Talk. "Black women carried these dances across the transatlantic slave trade to the ring shout in the Black American church, into the hips of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith when they sang the blues, into the bounce of Josephine Baker's banana dance," says Lizzo. "From jazz dance to jitterbug, from shake ya tail feather to shake your thang to shake your thang to that thang thangin', Black people carried the origins of this dance through our DNA, through our blood, through our bones."

Both women also agree that twerking has its roots in Africa and is a derivative of mapouka, an Ivorian dance born in the 1990s, and censored by the National Council for Audiovisual Communication (CNCA). This ban has, in fact, largely contributed to the spread of the practice throughout the African continent and beyond.

But this African paternity remains difficult to prove, says the French-Cameroonian choreographer James Carlès, for whom the movement was born in the early 2000s in Harlem.

A group of women learning who to Twerk in a dance class, taking place in Paris, France.

A Twerk dance class in Paris, France.

B'Attitude-paris.com / Facebook

Harlem to Scandinavia 

"Twerking arrived after the mapouka, but the influence of this style is much more visible in the coupé-décalé [a genre of popular dance music in Côte d'Ivoire]," says Carlès. "What can be noted is that the slaves always kept the dances in their bodies to save their souls. So in the history of Afro dance in the United States, there has always been a return to Africa. So you can see in twerking the influence of the Ivorian community settled in Harlem or a memory of bodies — or both."

There is a continuum in all Afro-descendant dances.

For Carlès, there is a continuum in all Afro-descendant dances that can be explained by belonging to a community while expressing its uniqueness: "In Europe, we don't always understand this very communitarian relationship to dance, but it fascinates us. We find this recurrence in funk and blues, and in twerking too. These are dances that have participated in reappropriating one's body and sexuality."

This explains the success of twerking outside the borders of Africa, especially at the time of the third feminist generation and the #MeToo movement.Twerking is not yet recognized by any federation, unlike pole dancing in France, for example. While the practice has been democratized everywhere in Europe through courses and trainings, it still remains largely associated with erotic performances like lap dances and not as an art form in its own right.

One finds it nevertheless in unexpected and often incongruous spaces, even in the capitals of the Scandinavian countries, within the framework of specialized training to prove one fundamental point about the dance: that anyone can twerk.

*This article was translated with permission from its author

Jeune Afrique
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

​✅ SIGN UP

This is our daily newsletter Worldcrunch Today, a rapid tour of the news of the day from the world's best journalism sources, regardless of language or geography.

It's easy (and free!) to sign up to receive it each day in your inbox: 👉 Sign up here

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

Keep reading... Show less
Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ