The History of Twerking

by Neal Litherland 8 months ago in history

A Dance Move Older Than Most Countries

The History of Twerking

For most people (well, most mainstream white people, anyway), twerking seems like a random dance craze that exploded onto the pop culture scene in the years 2012 and 2013. With celebrities like the Twerk Team rising to positions of Internet fame, the move being prominently featured in music videos such as Diplo's "Express Yourself," and the coverage culminating in the infamous Miley Cyrus Video Music Award Performance with Robin Thicke, twerking looked like something that had sprung up overnight.

But, of course, it's actually been around for a long time. And if you're willing to trace its lineage back down through the generations, it's got a surprising amount of history behind it.

For more bits of trivia and historical curiosities, take a moment to check out my full Vocal archive!

Back Across The Ocean

This is not as easy or as simple a question to answer as it might look on the surface. Twerking will never be mentioned in the same breath as ballet, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have one hell of a history that stretches across a lot of years and several continents.

The earliest ancestor of the twerk is a dance called the mapouka, according to Mental Floss, which comes from the Ivory Coast in Africa. While twerking isn't a carbon copy of this centuries old booty-shaking dance, there is a definite familial resemblance. The mapouka is still practiced today, and it is generally a dance that's meant to showcase joy and happiness. There is another version which is more salacious, and it's meant expressly to keep the audience's eyes glued to the dancer. .. which it does quite well, as you can see.

Just as with Cyrus's twerking display in 2013, the mapouka eventually upset the government in that particular part of Western Africa. There was a lot of hemming and hawing, and the mapouka was banned outright from being performed for many years. The result of a government ban was, of course, that the dance grew wildly popular and spread out to a much bigger region than it had ever been practiced in before. The ban remained in place until the fall of the government, at which time it was lifted.

From mainland Africa the mapouka moved out to the dance halls of Britain, but also to the Caribbean. Through the slave trade, as well as through later attempts to reclaim cultural roots lost due to the slave trade, the mapouka took hold in Jamaica. It changed as well, and in some cases split off into separate, distinct styles like daggering (a style of rough grinding between partners with a lot of thrusting, hence the knife-like name). Again, the dances were declared publicly lewd, and again the response to a government crack down was that the dance grew ridiculously popular and spread like wildfire.

The term twerking came about in the early 1990s in Louisiana according to Fuse. The move was and old favorite by that time, and a standby of the hip hop scene. Bounce music (characterized by the performer and audience going back and forth with call out lines) was the style that dubbed the move the twerk, which was a combination of the words "twist" and "jerk." Twerking remained a favorite move in both hip hop and rap, and it never faded from the repertoire of dance moves found in New Orleans. That's where Miley Cyrus learned to twerk, and the rest as they say is history.

How Come You Never Heard of Twerking Before 2013?

I'm going to throw some words at you; rock and roll, jazz, rap. Know what these and other countless musical revolutions all have in common? They had all been around for years (decades in some cases), but they'd never gotten popular in the mainstream until a white performer got up on stage. Twerking is no different in this case.

Is that right? Obviously not, especially given the amount of outrage that white-washing a music style, dance move, or other cultural contribution can cause. History is rife with that kind of marketing, and twerking is just the latest example of a piece of well-established, African American culture being appropriated and brought onto the bigger stage. In this case the dance was performed by a pop princess everyone knew and loved, which made it something that could be broadcast on national television rather than done in a dance hall or on a niche channel that didn't have that kind of massive reach.

And like many of the other styles that were mentioned above, twerking was seen as some new fad that came out of nowhere when, in fact, it's been around and practiced for decades or centuries, depending on your measuring stick.

Neal Litherland
Neal Litherland
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Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

See all posts by Neal Litherland