For many Americans, saying the word “twerk” conjures up images of rap videos where scantily-clad gyrate their hips while bent over a blinged-out Cadillac Escalade. Twerking is seen as sexual, incredibly controversial and even scandalous. Just look at the astonished reaction that Miley Cyrus’ surprise twerk session at the VMA Awards in 2013. For a lot of white Americans, this was their first encounter with what appeared to be a lewd, almost primitive form of dancing.
This is sad and frustrating to me as a native Islander. Long before white celebs like Miley hijacked it to cause a stir, the act that Americans call “twerking” was a simple form of dancing, an expression of passion, a cultural movement. Growing up in Haiti, we didn’t call it twerking — we called it dance. It wasn’t scandalous — it was just moving our bodies in celebration of all the good things of life.
I vividly remember a day after my family moved to the U.S. from Haiti. I had grown up with the beautiful dances of the islands, which I carried back with me to the states. I had been dancing as I always had in front of some American family friends. Their scornful looks of disgust still burn in my mind. “Why does such an innocent little girl like her dance like that?” they asked my parents.
To me, I see this as a conflict between cultural norms. In Afro-centric cultures like the Caribbean, we value physical freedom of expression, including moving our bodies as a means of celebration. In the U.S., there is still a puritan abhorrence of anything that can be interpreted as being overtly sexual. The rap artists who have plastered our minds with images of women twerking are partially at fault for this. They’ve taken something pure and wholesome and turned it into a precursor to sex. But that’s never what it was supposed to be — it was simply an expression of joy.
Ladies, it’s time to take back our twerking.