Twerking: How An African Dance Is Shaking Up Latin America

A journey, past and present, into the physical benefits and deeper meanings of (not quite) everyone's favorite hip-jerking dance craze.

Dance lesson in the GiolizTwerk academy, Mexico
Dance lesson in the GiolizTwerk academy, Mexico
Patricia Lasca*

BUENOS AIRES — Why do we dance? This primordial expression that connects us, almost instinctively, with our emotions, emerged in antiquity and has evolved with the rhythm of time. In tribes, dancing was part of the rituals that assured survival through rain, fruitful hunting, fertility.

In ancient Greece, dance had its origins in religion. The dithyrambs were celebrations of Dionysus, son of Zeus and the god of sensual pleasures, wherein men, and only men, would chant and dance themselves into a trance. One day, a participant must have departed from its script to recite the god's adventures, soon prompting others to join in and create a dialogue that became the ancestor of theater. We can see how dance is one channel through which a society (or groups in society) communicated (and communicate) their perceptions of reality and history, wherever in the world they might be.

Today there is an urban dance form with African roots spreading from New Orleans to Latin America, conquering adepts and adding to its detractors. More and more people are dancing it here in Argentina: it's called "twerking."

Choreographers define it as pelvis-led jerking movements in which the hips move back and forth, sideways and around in endless combinations. It is practiced in many positions and at many levels, with the knees generally bent and facing out for some moves. Doing it properly requires gyrating the pelvis continuously clockwise and anti-clockwise, while relaxing the gluteal muscles.

Gluteal dances were enacted at weddings and rituals to induce fertility.

Fans cite advantages to regular twerking: less painful menstrual periods (as its movements relax the uterus), better sex and even better orgasms (as pelvic muscles become more familiar), partial relief of lower back pains, improved posture and a fortified pelvic floor. Many women who twerk add that they used to be embarrassed by their backside, but now are eager to show it off.

Romina Fisela, an actress, choreographer and theater director, has been twerking for years. "I have seen horrified looks," she says,"I could not speak freely with my family. Even friends my age have given me sideway glances thinking this was something you do "to hook up." But a lot of pupils also tell me they understand its strong cultural content and how it makes them feel good about their bodies. They connect with dance, with sexuality and with other pupils from a place of diversity, respect and fun."

Kimberly Jordan Creation instructors, choreography by Kim Jordan. — Video: YouTube

Fisela says twerking is "delving into a technique, training and learning to relax about that whole big deal called the backside."

She adds that "the world of ideas and intellectual thought seems constantly to underestimate the physical, as if a speaker weren't trying to seduce with words. I also ask myself, why must the woman have the responsibility of not tempting man and not becoming an object? A man should have the ability not to encroach on my freedoms."

Shaking your backside is ancestral. Historically, gluteal dances were enacted at weddings and rituals to induce fertility, strengthen the pelvic muscles after birth and celebrate from a place of resistance. The African diaspora, through slavery, took these dances to Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the United States. In each country, descendants of those slaves have their own techniques, pertinent names and music. In Cuba this is vacunao and in the Ivory Coast, the Mapouka, though neither name has become familiar to us like twerk. The term entered the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, when curiously it was the second most searched word, after "selfie." It was first cited in the song Do The Jubilee All, by DJ Jubilee, more than 25 years ago.

In recent years twerking has been popularized by figures like Big Freedia, a musician from New Orleans, the Disney star Miley Cyrus, and in Argentina by Jimena Barón. Kim Jordan, a U.S. choreographer and sociologist based in Barcelona, points out that its roots are in the New Orleans black LGBTQ community.

Its emotional impact is revolutionary.

People disagree on whether or not women should display their bodies for men's delectation. One feminist viewpoint might question whether corporal exhibition isn't perpetuating the sexist patterns feminism is precisely trying to end. So, can such dances empower women? Jordan believes working on erotic parts of your body is liberating, as it helps you control and feel better about your body. Twerking, she says, need not be a "symbol" of female liberation, though she insists its emotional impact is revolutionary.

She says it remains more normal to view women's bodies as objects, with the violence this may entail, and that changing this perspective is a work in progress. Jordan's slogan, "To twerk is not a crime," states her view of it as a revolution that can take women toward "sexual, physical and emotional autonomy."

Dance lesson in the GiolizTwerk academy, Mexico. — Photo: Ivan Stephens/El Universal/ZUMA

Is twerking a sexual dance? Fisela believes it is. "It dances with our core, the creative core of life and of vital, sexual impulses. At the end of the day, many of the expressions in different dances are generated by conquest, provocation and seduction. The great conflict arises when you take a prohibitive view of sexuality, in a Westernized social context where integrated sexual education is just beginning at schools. Gender theories are reaching more people, and we are constantly questioning and investigating."

How does one twerk in keeping with its original meaning? Losing its cultural context may lead to crass commercialization, says Jordan, as we see on viral videos of young girls twerking to violent and disrespectful music. She says this does not truthfully represent this dance, which emerged from the street, "from a place of resistance and pleasure," and as an expression of diversity, communal bonding and personal liberation.

Fisela says "when a social group "takes over someone else's cultural good," this is reinterpreted and crossed over with new meanings given it by the group they represent. But it is also important to remember that in this part of the world, it is still a young dance that is developing and maturing." Twerking is looking for its place amid tensions between the old and established, and the liberating present.

*Patricia Lasca is a history teacher.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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