An Abridged History of Twerk Culture

There's a reason this much-maligned dance has persisted throughout the African diaspora

Steve Ferdman/Shutterstock

This past January, Miami’s hip-hop duo, City Girls, dropped the video to their single “Twerk” featuring Cardi B. Though I remember the video made me proud and gave me nostalgia for my college days at an HBCU, I was equally enraged to see the same old critiques of twerking resurface. It’s shameful, it’s uncouth, it sets black women back. It’s anything but those things. The music video was revolutionary in that it unabashedly displayed the meaning of what ass-shaking is about: empowerment, self-expression and most of all, community.

During my time as an undergrad, my friends and I spent many nights lounging around and making twerk videos to the sounds of New Orleans bounce artist, Sissy Nobby. Florida classics such as “Yae,” and the Baltimore/Jersey house music sounds of “Toot Dat,” were anthems we’d compete over to see who could move their butt the fastest. Amongst one another, there was joy, understanding, and most of all, safety. But our safety was compromised when we used our social platforms to showcase the fun we were having. The twerk video that we posted my freshman year had consequently brought us all warnings of “how to conduct ourselves as young women online.” One friend’s mother, whom did not have social media, confronted her saying she had heard her pubic hairs were showing. Although we laughed at the ridiculousness then, I would eventually understand the possible damage and shame of such claims following my graduation in 2015. While celebrating at a reggae club, recording my friends dancing on Snapchat, a college colleague messaged me, calling me and my friends “freaks.”

The lyrics to “Twerk,” serve as a lady’s anthem, in which Yung Miami makes it known that a man didn’t choose her, she picked him—a flip to the patriarchal standard of a woman being chosen by a man for courtship. Other than the song’s empowering lyrics, the video that follows features women chosen as contestants for a twerk contest. It was the epitome of black women comradery. For one, all contestants were taken care of. As Yung Miami put it, they were “flewed” out with all expenses paid, showing black women in power catering to and compensating the needs of other black women. Although there was only one prize winner, all 20 women were afforded the opportunity to feature in the music video.

Black femme bodies twerking, especially on video, have been perverted into a solely sexual lens, which opposes its historic purpose— a way for feminine energy to bond and celebrate.

Viewing this video reminded me of the twerking I did with my home girls at our HBCU. I felt the same joy seeing diverse black women coming together in friendly competition, celebrating one another’s techniques, flexibility, athleticism and creativity. But as much as the video resonated with those who understood, it also came under attack from others. Conservative Stephanie Hamill posed the question, “In the Era of #metoo, how exactly does this empower women?” on Twitter. Although Cardi B replied, “It says to women that I can wear and not wear whatever I want. Do w.e I want and that NO still means NO…” Hamill’s original tweet, which gained 32.9k likes and 6,000+ retweets, stung. Her view was rooted in a common rhetoric among those who believe that women—especially black women—who twerk, are deserving of sexual violence. But it also confirmed what I knew when messaged by my colleague. Black femme bodies twerking, especially on video, have been perverted into a solely sexual lens, which opposes its historic purpose— a way for feminine energy to bond and celebrate.

The twerk in modern Western culture has been described as a dance where one thrusts their hips in a sexually provocative manner. But as Candace Tabbs—a dance instructor who focuses on modern dance and African contemporary dance in New York City—once told me, “It’s a vehicle for praise and worship, and it all goes back to the Earth.”  

The origins of twerking trace back to Africa where dance movements involve every aspect of the body. It is said that parts of the dance can be traced back to the time of hunters and gatherers, a way of living before the concept of owning property and the creation of Abrahamic religions. The ritual dance was a way for women’s cycles to sync, and it also honored the natural cycle of a woman’s fertility and blood flow. The modern movements of what the West refers to as ‘twerking’ resemble traditional African dances, disseminated across the diaspora. One example is the Mapouka, which originated in West Africa in the Southeast region of Cote d’ Ivoire. There is Sabar from Senegal, Niiko from Somalia and Soukous from the Congo. All of these dances reside in the same family of buttocks movement, performed by black women.

The Mapouka dance, which means “the dance of the behind,” has been around for decades. It was a traditional dance performed at festivals and known as a way to achieve a closer connection with God. Usually, the dance was done with a group of women, all dancing in a circle together—free from the male gaze, although accompanied by male African drummers.

Although many have been intellectually separated from the reasons this dance continues to persist, the historic memory continues to live on within black bodies.

Like twerking, this form of dance endured intense scrutiny in many African countries. When booty dancing became notably popular in the ‘90s, dances like the Mapouka were banned in Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria due to the claim that women were dancing half naked to it. But women dancing, especially to the sounds of African drumming, has always held significant meaning. The two work together like a call-and-response, being used as a means of communication during times of slavery, prior to the laws that enforced their ban. Currently, the music we recognize as “Bounce”—through the likes of Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia—all hail from New Orleans, a place particularly known for its preservation of traditional African dances, rituals and spirituality.

During the time of Haiti’s Revolution, prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans was French-owned, and therefore not part of the United States. An open space near the Mississippi River, known as Congo Square, served as a free place for slaves to visit town, dance and practice their culture. Since Louisiana was not yet a state, slaves have a little more autonomy when it came to connecting with their heritage. Following the Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian revolt, French slave-owners escaped to New Orleans, some bringing slaves from the Caribbean. With the black population increasing in the area, slave-owners became skeptical of placing restrictions on slaves at Congo Square, thinking it would lead to another revolt. As a result, Sundays served as the designated allowance for slaves to come together.

The beauty of culture is it takes on new forms while staying true to its initial existence. The history of twerking is hard to come by due to the limited scholarship available, a result of systemic racism and colonization throughout the United States and around the world. Life, however, happens in cycles. Although many have been intellectually separated from the reasons this dance continues to persist, the historic memory continues to live on within black bodies.