Twerking at Afropunk?

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.

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Written by:

  • Ciarra Ross

    dear afropunk fest twerk commentators,
    I seriously tried my damnedest to stay away from this national conversation on twerking but now that there are articles popping up about me and other women’s twerking at Afropunk in Brooklyn, I must speak my piece now.
    my hips have been awake for centuries with stories to tell. these stories of carrying life and cultivating earth in fields that our cities sit on flow through my entire body—my ass, hips and legs are no exception. today, we call some of this movement twerking. today to shake, gyrate and bounce to this age old, ancestral rhythm says black women are without worth. but are our bodies’ movements not the blueprint to consult for raising miley cyrus’ networth? do rappers and their producers not consult our vibration to construct their latest [exploitive] works?
    and isn’t it funny how twerking can be celebrated, defended and loved when it is performed by gay men or white women, especially the latter? the moment that it is authentically performed by a black woman, she is policed, hypersexualized, criticized and looked down upon. black women have been moving hips, legs and ass to make the rain come down, celebrate harvests, welcome and channel the creative life force and bring forth human life for centuries. this dance form is just that, a dance form. what makes it lewd, vile, low and solely sexual— the black female body performing it?
    when i perform this dance it is not to make the rain come down, in the form of money or water. i dance to enjoy myself and move to the rhythm that i know, to the bass in my body. somehow this dance is viewed as an invitation to touch me, grab me or approach me in a sexual manner as if that’s why i am dancing. before we all assume, let me be clear, i am not “asking” for this treatment. my dancing is a form of *autonomy* and nothing about it is communicating self-exploitation or soliciting someone else’s. yes, dancing commands attention but it is not to be assumed that my form of dance is vulgar and warrants negative or sexual attention from neither women nor men.
    this dance has been coded as being explicitly sexual and i do not fully agree because that is not the only way that it is performed. can it be sexual? yes. is it always? no. and when it is sexual do i then lose my value, autonomy or sense of worth? HELL NO.
    but the answer this patriarchal society has given us is yes, “twerking” is lewd, vile, vulgar, tasteless, sexual and only for male consumption. and when viewed this way, the power of moving my body the way that i want to move it for my own enjoyment is transferred to men attempting to treat my body however they want for their own sexual enjoyment.
    and where else have i witnessed this transfer of power and devaluing of female sexuality? this so-called “asking for it” is a victim blaming that is accused all too often of rape victims. female rape victims are told they “ask” for rape by acting, dressing or dancing a certain way. how does this egoic thinking inform men’s ideas of themselves—of women? how does this thinking inform women’s ideas of themselves, in this case, black women’s? is society validating that self control and respect can be forfeited at any given time that a woman is perceived as conveying her sexuality? again, who is saying this dance equates solely to sexuality? and when it does convey sexuality, do we then lose our humanity and become a sexual object for male pleasure? our sexuality and the performance of it through dance is not vile, tasteless or gross and it is certainly not up for unwanted grabs.
    when it comes to the movement of my body in my female form, i resist the utterly disgusting notions being purported by this society. and I’m not one to resist it by not doing something that i enjoy. on the contrary, i dance all day everyday and you better believe i will “twerk” when the time is right and i so choose. this isn’t me “asking.” this is me telling, telling society to fuck off.
    my hips have a story to tell.

  • blu girl

    And suddenly I don’t feel so bad for missing AP Fest this year. They are so far from the original intent of the festival it ain’t even funny.