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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

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