Twerking among Black women has recently emerged as a threat—to the “politics of respectability” that associate proficiency in art forms dismissed as “low class”/”ghetto”/”ratchet” with moral turpitude and intellectual degeneracy; to the notion that Black women (both cis and transgender) and gay men adept at dances that focus attention on the torso merit contempt instead of praise; to the belief that if a person (especially young and Black and/or Latino/a) provokes desire, whether purposefully or unwittingly, they/s/he deserves violent exposure to the worst of contemporary “rape culture,” from internet trolling to physical abuse; to the the idea that historically Black innovations (such as AAVE and queer men’s and trans women’s ballroom voguing) exist merely to be decontextualized, commodified, and jokingly imitated, rather than commemorated as collectively affirmed vectors of value and ongoing modes of resistance.
In the online exchanges concerning Black women’s twerking and the subsequent appropriation(s) of it by white performers, some have questioned the extent of its linkages to older African-derived dances. Others know far more about the topic from first-hand experience and have more to offer in terms of analysis. I would like to expand the discussion slightly to draw a few more connections across the African Diaspora—between African-American dances as currently performed and Caribbean movement traditions—than those I have seen elsewhere. For instance, I would propose comparison not only with the “limin,’” “wainin,’” or “winin’” of Jamaica and Trinidad, but also with Cuban dance styles that share with certain West and Central African forms an emphasis on the buttocks as punctuation marks for the narrative told by the legs of the dancer. Rumba guaguancó, with its characteristic thrusting vacunao, is a textbook example.
Another complex of dances that would reward consideration alongside twerking are of Haitian origin (and with which I am unfortunately less familiar, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies). For example, the lwa, or spirits, of the Gede clan enjoy dancing the hip-swiveling banda, and seeing it executed for them. Gage Averill relates,
The Gedes (including Bawon Samdi/Papa Gede, Grann Brijit, Gede Nibo, Bawon Lakwa, and others) are spirits who guard the secrets of death and the cemetery and also have a special relationship to crossroads. The dance of the Gedes is the highly sexual banda, with its accentuated rolling of the pelvis, and the Gedes have a privileged position from which to interject humor and sexuality into all of their interactions.
Yvonne Daniel disputes the interpretive focus on sex, arguing that banda communicates the need for “keeping life vital,” but not the importance of banda in ritual practice. While banda performance may also turn explicitly oppositional, as when the Gedes demand resources or rights from the powers-that-be, it is difficult to think of a celebration of survival among people of African descent that would not be—in multiple senses—political.
Similar movements are not confined to ceremonies explicitly centered on the lwa. As in the footage seen above, filmed by Maya Deren between 1947 and 1951, participants in the Lenten (usually Easter Week) festival called Rara visually cite banda and have developed genres of performance that strategically use the hips and hindquarters as tools of expression. The poses struck by these majò jon or ”baton jugglers,” convincingly traced to Kongo precedents, complement the bodily attitudes assumed by the ”queens” of Rara bands. Elizabeth McAlister observes,
A quality Rara queens seem to share with their hip-hop counterparts is their irreverence toward the dominant culture’s moral stance, which would seek to repress their sexuality as women. Rara queens, as well as rappers and other women artists in Black Atlantic performance traditions, fashion and perform a publicity that projects images of female sexual freedom and economic control.
One common feature of many forms is the celebration of the African female behind. Future scholarship might well look into the possibility that the “bottom-heavy” hip-rotating dances like gouyad, whinin’, and “doin’ da butt” “had one meaning in African culture and came to be integrated into bodily performances of opposition in the American setting.”
At the end of this passage, McAlister quotes Judith Bettelheim’s 1990 paper, “Deconstructing the Mythologies: From Priestess to ‘Red Hot Mama’ in African and African American/Caribbean Performances.” This title hints at the work still to be done in order for twerking to be understood more widely as part of a larger family of Diasporic dances, and for its mastery to be appreciated as a unique recombination of skill, knowledge, and kinship.