by Guest Contributor Edna Nelson
On the first night of the Afropunk 2013 festival, there was an onstage twerk contest.
It was not on the program and happened right before Saul Williams was supposed to go on stage. It was an impromptu event that was designed to buy time and presumably build excitement. Big Freedia was playing the next day, so it is impossible for one to say that twerking was something that didn’t belong at Afropunk. Twerking, like any other dance can be a way for a person to claim power in her own body, enjoy her physical possibilities, challenge herself, expand her range of movement and feed her mind with physical knowledge. But in that moment? In that way?
Since twerking has gone viral, commentaries on the trend have focused on the roots of the dance and what it possibly means for various groups to preform it. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough discussion about twerking in a performative context – i.e. what kinds of spaces twerking might be preformed within and for what reason. It feels like the discussion has been more about validating or condemning twerking in a vacuum rather than giving it space to exist within the realm of dance.
Dance movement depends on a dancer or choreographers intention, and awareness combined with the effect of the movement itself. A seemingly “vulgar” posture can convey profound messages. Unfortunately black women’s bodies, and dance expression have been viewed through a white supremacist lens of projected profanity, which is something some supporters of the twerk movement may be seeking to actively oppose. How do we strive to define spaces in which we can use dance and physical expression, including twerking, in a way that promotes a world in which women are free? What does it mean when this effort is confronted with a patriarchy that is vying for the same spaces?
I got turned on to twerking by a friend of mine who was a huge fan of Sissy Nobby.
[Video slightly NSFW – there is twerking, but most people are fully clothed]
Although I admired the twerking feats I observed on his videos I never aspired to them partly because I am a bad dancer and partly because I have never spent the time to learn trendy dance moves. Still, I loved Sissy Nobby’s bombastic sounds, and powerful movements which bravely took physical and sexual space in a way that seemed liberating and fun. Some of my friends and I even had a twerking party at the end of housewarming. There were mostly women left and we were bored. Besides, I was sick of listening to 80’s hits, and wanted to get my friends into Bounce music. That night was fun, it was a great opportunity to dance together, and it never saw the light of YouTube. That night was all for us. That night was about being free.
Is freedom what is being celebrated on youtube? Is it the wonder of explorative movement that we are promoting when we ask random women to come up from the audience at a public event and show a group of strangers how well they can twerk? Is competing on stage as unknown nameless women an empowering feminist way to kill time? Or is it a provocative call to white supremacist misogyny?
Twerkers post videos that showcase their speed, variation, and ability to keep up with the beat challenging viewer’s to out-do them. Unfortunately on Youtube, this friendly competition is turned into a spectator sport. And that is the part I have a problem with. Especially in a public context where the women in the audience are not prepared for it. If I would have known about the twerk contest at Afropunk Fest, I wouldn’t have invited my younger sister to be with me at that event as late into the evening as we were. But I like Saul Williams’ work and wanted to introduce her to his music.
When the contest started, my sister became giddy, saying “I wanna get closer! I never saw anyone twerking in real life before! How exciting!” It was a request I complied with out of the intention of giving my sister what she wanted, and then retracted with the intention of giving my sister what was best for her.
As we walked in getting closer to the stage I heard a man call out “Oh yeah! girls you gonna give it a try?” I instantly felt a jolt of disgust run through my body. The simple presence of a twerk contest meant every woman was apparently free game. We were invited to participate in self sexualization that seemed to be solely for the sake of providing free entertainment.
I wanted to model resistance, so I pulled my sister to the side and told her I didn’t feel safe in that space with her anymore. It was time to go home.
Later on, my younger sister commented on how all the men in the audience seemed to push forward to better see the stage. In her eyes the festival had transformed from a place where everyone could enjoy, to a male centered space where sexual content was being put on stage for patriarchy to consume. I am both proud that she noticed this shift, and disappointed that a day that could have been perfect was ruined by exploitive thinking backstage.