Recently, Miley Cyrus, who I can’t believe is 20 years old, released a video of herself “twerking”. You must have seen it by now. As a self-proclaimed fan of booty dancing in its various forms, I was instantly worried about the appropriation of yet another African-American dance following the disaster of the fake Harlem Shake. It was surprising to note that reactions to Miley Cyrus “twerking” were by and large very positive, whereas African-American women – who created the dance style – tend to provoke the exact opposite reaction when they twerk.
Thus while Miley Cyrus gets a free pass, the set of double-standards that lie at the heart of white privilege means that African-American women who twerk are denied the same. For a quick example, take a look at the comments below this short post featuring a video of a woman dancing in a convenience store. Amid the voices noting her talent, there are others labeling the woman as “mentally challenged”, the dance “disgusting” and twerking “useless”. Twerking has continuously been dismissed as low class or “ghetto” while being associated with a lack of morals and intellect”, and when African-American girls and women upload videos of themselves twerking they are usually subject to internet trolling.
I can’t agree that Miley Cyrus actually “twerks” in that video, but I do agree with her when she says that twerking is natural. I would go further and say that booty dancing/popping tends to come more naturally to women of African descent. Find a group of Black people (including men), and among them will be someone who can perform one type of booty dance or another (I am yet to be disproven on this). In the United States, apart from twerking, there is the New Orleans bounce, among other forms of booty dancing.
Moving beyond the States to other parts of the African diaspora, in Haiti there is gouye/gouyad, in Colombia the El Mapale, in Cuba the vacunao, and most people are familiar with Jamaican winin’. On to Africa itself: in Senegal we have the ventilateur, in Somalia the niiko, kwassa kwassa in DR Congo (which goes by the same name in Zimbabwe), and the Cameroonian zingué. Not to mention malaya malaya of the Afro-Arab communities in Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Soukous from the DR Congo
Amara La Negra from the Dominican Republic
Booty dances exist in various forms throughout the African Diaspora, and in Africa, and dance in general has long been a medium through which people of African descent worship, express creativity, communicate, pay homage to ancestors and spirits among other functions. Yet booty-dancing as an art form continues to be derided maligned and dismissed as inconsequential or obscene, and the black women doing the dances are objectified, seen as hyper-sexualised and disgusting.
In times past, we might have swung our hips from side to side in time with the rhythm to celebrate fertility or female sexual energy or in the worship of certain deities. Today, the many forms of booty dances retain some similarities, yet each is unique, and they continue to develop and gain popularity under different circumstances.
Mapouka is an Ivoirian dance that rapidly gained popularity throughout West Africa in 1997. Derived from a tamer traditional dance that is usually carried out during religious ceremonies among the Ahizi, Alladian and Avikam ethnic groups in south-western coastal region of Cote d’Ivoire, mapouka caused waves of controversy not only in Cote d’Ivoire, but also in other West African countries, mostly due to mapouka videos being sold and marketed as pornography. The dance was banned in Cote d’Ivoire until the 1999 coup, and controlled in countries like Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Cameroon where some overzealous individuals who happened to have some power decided it was lewd and obscene. Seen as a corruption of the original tradition dance, it was criticised as being solely for the male gaze. This ignored the fact women, too, enjoyed watching these videos, women such as Eliane Meledje, the young seamstress interviewed by Norimatsu Onishi for that NYT article, and claimed to feel liberated by the popular mapouka group Les Tueuses, or The Killers.
In “Playing It Loud and Straight: Reggae, Zouglou, Mapouka and Youth Insubordination in Cote d’Ivoire” [PDF download], Simon Akindes notes that in mapouka, women “reclaim ownership of their bodies that they do not want to see regulated from outside,” and as these women shake their hips and bottoms, they’re aware of the conservative, puritanical Christian and Islamic mindset that labels what they’re doing immoral and vulgar, they just happen to disagree entirely with that opinion. Mapouka, it’s also worth noting, is partly behind the increased yearning for larger bottoms among Ivorian women, and in the concomitant rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty.
The drive to resist the historical colonial tradition of degrading Black women’s bodies when they dance persists in other cultures where the modern takes on booty dancing have taken root. In Jamaica, dancehall dances can provide a space where women shake their bottoms to challenge colonial constructs of decency while dealing with their bodies on their own terms. There is a long history of Black women being sexually exploited, objectified, and labelled sexually lascivious in the Americas during slavery, and the story of Sarah Baartman is familiar to many; she was the Khoikhoi woman who was taken from her home in Eastern Cape to be displayed in “freak shows” across Europe for her large bottom, and subjected to scientific dissection after her death. With such a history, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that many are still not comfortable with Black women shaking or displaying their bottoms. However, it is necessary to question that discomfort since women’s bodies belong to them, and how they choose to display or shake what belongs to them is for them to decide. It is necessary to challenge the dehumanising and objectifying gaze that will view women booty-shaking as mere sexual objects, as well as the colonial gaze that labels African expressions as obscene.
Booty-dances deserves respect. When a Black woman chooses to move her butt to the rhythm she may be doing it for a variety of reasons that far outweigh the imaginary man that all women supposedly shake their butts for. Despite centuries of repression, slavery, subordination and colonisation, these dances continue to thrive and are constantly born and reborn in different ways. Today, booty-shaking has become a means through which Black women reclaim ownership of their bodies and assert their sexuality while resisting hetero-patriarchal and racist cultures that seek to repress women’s sexuality and/or control women’s bodies, not to mention a means to having fun. It is also worth mentioning that it takes a huge amount of skill to do these dances, and this needs to be acknowledged and appreciated, too, even if the dances aren’t your cup of tea.