From Miley Cyrus breaking it down in a unicorn onesie to Vanessa Hudgens popping it on The Tonight Show, it's clear that twerking has crept its way from the strip clubs of America and into our living rooms. The dance, firmly embedded in urban hip-hop culture, comes in various forms, from the booty bouncing stripper dance featured in David LaChapelle's 2005 documentary Rize about L.A.'s krumping dance culture to the sensual gyrations of Carribbean dancehall.
Though bumping, grinding and booty dancing are nothing new, it seems like twerking is having a moment of its own. From celebrity twerkers to DIY videos, the dance (and the term) has become ubiquitous. And, as someone who studies the art of assology and has been twerking on bar stools, college campuses and venues across NYC for the past two years, I've compiled this breakdown of twerking from its conception and evolution to the dos and don'ts of the dance (you don't want to end up looking like this at the next office party).
Twerk's Origins in African Dance
Before Nicki Minaj had teenyboppers popping to "Superbass" or rapper Lady was showing us the true essence of the twerk technique, a similar jiggle was spotted in a near-identical dance known as mapouka, which originated in the Ivory Coast town of Dabou. Traditionally the intricate moves were used during religious ceremonies but it quickly became popular in nightclubs, thanks to its suggestive nature and a trio of performers known as Les Tueuses in the 1980s. The vulgarity of the dance prompted a government banning in 1998, which was eventually lifted after the fall of President Henri Konan Bedie.
Bounce Bounce Bounce
While mapouka was causing its own share of controversy in Africa, thousands of miles away in the U.S., artists in New Orleans were taking a similar format and applying it to their own original style of hip hop -- bounce music.
New Orleans' frenetic club music changed drastically during the late 1980s/early 1990s thanks to MC T.T. Tucker and DJ Irv's 1992 track "Where Dey At," which helped lay the groundwork for bounce music by artists like Partners-n-Crime, Cheeky Blakk and Choppa. Bounce's hallmark is its call and response-type chants that are always accompanied by a mash up of samples. All bounce music uses the punchy "Triggerman" beat that is mixed and looped with other beats like the Showboys' "Drag Rap," "Brown Beats" by Cameron Paul and Derek B's "Rock the Beat" producing the signature repetitive, frantic bounce sound.
Many bounce tracks also sample popular songs from other genres of music like Katey Red's "Where Da Melph At?," which samples Jill Scott's neo-soul hit "He Loves Me" to Sissy Nobby's "Beat it Out the Frame" which takes from Eve's "Gotta Man" from her 1999 breakout release. Samples, however, are usually unauthorized use, which restricts the sale and national radio airplay of the records. Even with these restrictions, the distinct sound of bounce along with its accompanying dance -- twerking -- are finding their way into the mainstream.
Today, some of the most recognizable bounce artists fall under the "sissy bounce" subgenre, which follows the same basic structure as bounce but is made by artists who identify as LGBTQ and who have reclaimed the derogatory term "sissy," wearing it proudly as a badge of honor. Artists like Big Freedia, Nicky Da B, Sissy Nobby and Katey Red have gained national press over the past couple of years and last May, super producer Diplo released "Express Yourself," a twerkalicious video featuring Nicky Da B and a slew of booty-bouncing gals that helped further cement bounce and twerking's crossover into the indie music blogosphere. (Nicky, I've been practicing my booty dribbling so if you ever need a new backup dancer, holler.)
(I also recommend watching this short informative doc featuring Diplo and the movers and shakers of the genre.)
Crunk and the "Twurkulator"
Twerking certainly isn't limited to queer-identifying rappers. Southern rap styles like crunk and Miami bass along with Baltimore club music and Chicago juke have been influenced by bounce and often incorporate some major booty-popping in their music videos. Artists from these genres, including Lil' Jon, David Banner and Gangsta Boo, and, of course, crunk vets the Ying Yang Twins, have all referenced twerking or "twurking" in their lyrics. In the 2000s, the twins were at the forefront of a southern rap takeover that filled airwaves with their crazy dirty lyrics ("Wait (The Whisper Song)" anyone?) accompanied by equally provocative dances.
Twerk Pioneers Head to YouTube
Even before Diplo and Nicky Da B were bringing twerking to the masses, YouTube stars were sharing their moves across the Internet. Originators of this DIY twerk video trend include Mizz. Twerksum and Lady Luscious, an Atlanta-based duo and founders of the original Twerk Team. In 2005, the two decided to film and upload their routines on YouTube and, since then, the team has seen their clips get millions of views, prompting them to start a small empire that includes apparel, club appearances, features in rap videos and now their own career as artists.
Video of the duo twerking to the viral hit Harlem Shake below.
The Assimilation of Ass Shaking
The convergence of twerking and the Internet brings us to today, when even Miley Cyrus has caught the bug (Exhibit A: this video of Cyrus shaking her booty to "Wop Wop Wop" by J Dash).
Even Spring Breakers' star and former PAPER cover girl Vanessa Hudgens couldn't contain herself -- watch her pop that thang on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Ashley Tisdale, the former Disney channel sensation went on Sway in the Morning and demonstrated some twerk skills that were fine-tuned after a few visits to Atlanta strip clubs while filming Scary Movie V.
Though watching former Disney stars twerk on national television (or in YouTube videos) makes it tempting to dismiss twerking as just another flash-in-the-pan, "Harlem Shake"-esque dance trend that's been co-opted and watered down by the mainstream, thanks to the rise of ratchet culture, twerking is a huge part of our zeitgeist right now. The term "ratchet" first started getting traction in 2005 when Anthony Mandigo and Lil' Boosie recorded the track "Do Tha Ratchet" and, recently, it seems that "ratchet" has become slang du jour when describing a particular zero fucks lifestyle adopted by females living in urban areas (though the term can also apply to the fellas).
Actress/writer/Awkward Black Girl genius Issa Rae offers further clarification on her web series "RATCHETPIECE Theatre," defining ratchet as "if ghetto and hot shitty mess had a baby, and that baby had no father, and became a stripper, and then made a sex tape with an athlete and became a reality star."
Initially a slur, lately a number of artists from Azealia Banks to Beyoncé have started to reclaim 'ratchet' to instead reflect a sort of flashy confidence, bringing ratchet to the masses along the way. (Recent photos of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga wearing hoop earrings with ratchet inscribed in the middle helped ignite a rumor that the duo, along with Banks, would be releasing a track called "Ratchet," though Banks has since denied the super collaboration.) Aside from pop stars, the Internet seems to have a fascination with ratchet culture, as the 40 million views on the viral video "Ratchet Girl Anthem," released this past January, attest
From the verbal confrontations betweek NeNe Leaks and her Real Housewives of Atlanta costars, the physical altercations on Oxygen's Bad Girls Club to Beyoncé commanding her fellow entertainers to, "bow down bitches!" ratchet behavior is becoming more and more common in the songs we dance to and the television shows we watch. And it makes sense then that twerking, a dance as in-your-face and unapologetic as the ratchet lifestyle, has become associated with ratchet culture. If the ratchet lifestyle has arrived (whether spread by pop stars or viral videos), it's safe to assume its 'artistic embodiment' -- twerking -- has finally arrived too, and probably isn't going anywhere for a while.
And now for some Twerk Tips...
But whether you're Miley Cyrus or a YouTube twerking sensation in-the-making, be warned that twerking is not a right, it's a privilege -- if you're going to do it, do it correctly! A twerk here or there has become my go-to move during a live set and is an important addition to many of my back-up dancers' routines. A successful twerk takes toned butt muscles and rigorous hip isolation and if you've seen my dancers you know the skill helps keep your body in shape. (But just remember there's a time and a place for twerking -- don't end up like YouTuber Caramel Kitten who turned a regular trip to Walmart into a twerkfest.)
If you're looking for some basic tips to twerking, first, refer back to Nicky Da B in the "Express Yourself" video when he explains the basics: "Spread your legs, arch your back, go up and down, and make it clap." Next, make sure your backside isn't tense as you'll need to be as loose as possible to maximize your wiggle. Also, the looser your pants are, the better -- you don't want to contain your butt in a pants prison, you want it to bounce as freely as possible. I do my best twerking in a pair of old sweatpants in the comfort of my own home, but whenever I feel the need to do it in public I find a twerk can be accomplished in just about anything that's not too restricting. Finally, don't be afraid to use to a wall, chair, garbage can or even car door to help support your body as you bounce your booty to a beat.
If you're looking for more twerk tips, watch this instructional video below. (Take baby steps! My track "Get Right (Get Wet)" is the perfect starter before you get into the advance stuff, if I do say so myself.) Happy twerking!
Black and white portrait of Cakes da Killa by Alana Yolanda