Arielle Pardes | Can’t we all just dance?
The Screwtinizer | It’s your party and you can twerk if you want
September 4, 2013, 6:19 pm · Updated September 4, 2013, 10:22 pm·
Twerking: it can’t be tamed.
Twerking is the talk of the town — thanks, in part, to Miley Cyrus’s salacious performance at the Video Music Awards last week, where she transformed from virginity-pledging Hannah Montana to bikini-clad rockstar rousing herself with a foam finger.
In light of its new fame, twerking has become demonized as rabble-rousing vulgarity. Harry Styles, the teenage heartthrob of the band One Direction, was quoted this week condemning the dance move as “inappropriate,” saying that twerking is “promoting promiscuity.”
Is twerking really so scandalous?
The twerk was born in the New Orleans bounce music scene, where legends like DJ Jubilee notoriously invited audiences to invent dance moves in a signature call-and-repeat style: “do the beeny weeny,” “do the prime time” or (you guessed it) “do the twerk.”
In his book “Third Coast,” the definitive history of southern hip-hop, Roni Sarig explains that Jubilee was a schoolteacher in addition to being a DJ, so “he wasn’t about to spout a string of expletives over the mic. Instead of talking about bitches and guns, Jubilee focused on dancing.”
And that’s all the twerk was: a bouncy dance that came of age in a culture where people just wanted to get down and have a good time. It was good, clean fun.
DJ Jubilee’s 1993 hit “Do the Jubilee All” is the first recorded song to use “twerk” in its lyrics and since then, we’ve heard it in songs from megastars like Beyonce (“Check On It,” 2005), Justin Timberlake (“SexyBack,” 2006), and Drake (“Round of Applause,” 2011).
So how did Miley Cyrus in 2013 launch twerking to instant fame — and degradation?
Dayani Wijeyewardene, who owns an increasingly popular dance course in Melbourne, Australia called Twerkshop, said in an interview for the website FasterLouder.com that we’ve divorced twerking from its intended purpose: a way to dance and enjoy good music.
Indeed, while Miley’s offensive performance at the VMAs may be responsible for the twerk’s newfound notoriety, it also linked the move to some rather unpalatable aspects of her performance: the erotic foam finger, the pedophilic dancing teddy bears or Miley’s own tongue, hanging out of her mouth like a parched dog.
Now, conversations about twerking are usually caught up in criticizing crude performances like Miley’s rather than appreciating talented twerkers for their skill.
She can’t stop, and she won’t stop — but if Miley falls off the edge, she shouldn’t take the storied twerk down with her.
As bounce music diva Big Freedia said last week, “twerking comes from a long history of music and dance in New Orleans.” He warned that the twerk should be enjoyed by all, “as long as it’s respected.”
But that’s the thing: The twerk isn’t respected. What used to be a rousing dance move — a hybrid between a “twist” and “jerk,” while simultaneously bouncing your butt like it was made of jello — has become sexually deviant.
Even before the VMA incident, the idea that twerking involves sexual deviancy led to 30 high school students from San Diego (my hometown) being suspended and charged with sexual harassment for filming a twerk video on school grounds.
It’s hard to imagine such an extreme punishment from any other dance move. A viral media campaign to #freethetwerkteam rallied support behind the twerking troublemakers (as Miley might have defended them: “nobody’s perfect — you’ve gotta twerk it”) but their suspension wasn’t lifted.
Last week, the Oxford Dictionaries Online added a definition of twerk: “dancing to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance,” making it even easier to prosecute twerkers. The implication of this definition is that twerking, unlike the tango or even bumping and grinding, is pinned as sexually deviant.
Whether it’s the tango or the twerk, all dancing can be sexual in nature — but that doesn’t mean it should be vilified or rebuked. Next time you disparage the mighty twerk, I’d suggest that you twerk lightly.
Arielle Pardes is a College senior from San Diego. Her email address is email@example.com. You can follow her @pardesoteric. “The Screwtinizer” appears every Thursday.