Urban dictionary defines twerking as “rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones intended audience.” Recently, twerking has received considerable notoriety, thanks to a much (much, much) discussed awards show performance by pop star Miley Cyrus. The incident is a sad reminder that much of White America’s knowledge of Black culture comes through media imagery. In Cyrus’s case, that imagery includes parading around using Black women as props, in a misguided attempt to shed her Disney Channel roots and acquire some “street cred.” What has been lost in many of these conversations about Cyrus, twerking and perceptions of Black culture in the U.S. is the extent to which dances like twerking are deeply ingrained in African and Afro-diasporic history and traditions.
The actual term “Twerking” comes from New Orleans’ early 90s bounce scene. It was a party dance, not unlike the cat daddy or the dougie, where men and women would wind and thrust their hips to the bells and chimes of the beat. Modern day twerking is very similar to Mapouka, a dance from Côte d’Ivoire. The dance has existed for centuries and consists of a series of movements emphasizing the buttocks. Mapouka requires great skill and isolation of muscles. From its origin, Mapouka was a celebratory dance for festivals by Africans and was widely accepted because people believed that this dance led to encounters with God. Research shows that Mapouka has been used as a way to decide mates for young men and women as well.
Over time, this culturally meaningful celebration has become increasingly controversial. Modern Mapouka places a much grater influence on the mating aspects of the tradition incorporating a more sexual and Western attitude. In West Africa the dance had been looked down upon and described as an infectious disease by officials. Mapouka dancers were being chased away by officials in many neighboring countries like Togo and Niger. Mapouka was even banned from Ivorian Television at one point. So before you go out with your friends for “twerk sessions”, remember the culture and rich history and respect it.
by Ebony Wiggins