From the Charleston to the Twist to the Hustle, dance fads have always served to define their decade—though not without raising a few eyebrows from older generations. In fact, the disapproval of popular dance fads often seems as quintessentially American as the dances themselves. Such is the case with one of the most scandalous dance crazes to date, one that many would call the definitive dance of the 2010s: Twerking.
Let’s get this out of the way: To twerk, essentially, is to shake one’s butt. So yes, obviously, it’s not something to pull out in front of your grandparents at your next family reunion. A tongue-in-cheek definition by Urban Dictionary once defined twerking as “a series of movements made by females of the humanoid variety as an expression of contempt for their fathers.” While it’s not exactly family-friendly, claims that twerking originated in American strip clubs are sketchy at best. Rather, the dance’s strongest ties lie in Africa.
The movements involved in twerking show similarities to several traditional West African dances, most notably mapouka, hailing from the Cote d’Ivoire. Known colloquially as “la dance du fessier,” or “dance of the behind,” mapouka is said to exist in two forms: A tamer, more traditional dance performed ceremonially, and the newer, more scandalous version popular with young Ivorians.
The more modern version—and the one most closely related to twerking—is considered obscene and suggestive by some, and its traditional roots haven’t immunized it against controversy. In fact, the public performance of modern mapouka by groups such as Les Tueuses (The Killers), was outlawed in the 1980s; the Ivorian government cited lewdness as the reason for the ban. After that government was toppled by a military coup around 2000, mapouka performances were rendered legal once again. However, despite (or possibly due to) its prohibition, the infectious dance style had already spread throughout coastal West Africa and even taken up roots in the U.S. And so, in 1993, it twerked toward Bethlehem—err, New Orleans—to be born.
In the early '90s, New Orleans was home “bounce” music, a form of hip hop that relied heavily on call-and-response chanting. A popular artist at the time, DJ Jubilee, recorded a song called “Do the Jubilee All.” When the accompanying video featured young people furiously shaking their fessiers alongside the lyrics “twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk,” the word twerk—a combination of the words twist and jerk—arrived with the new dance craze of the same name.
Since that fateful moment, twerking has been on the rise, steadily picking up speed in the U.S. with each passing year. Atlanta rapper Lil Jon and The East side Boys popularized the word when they began using it, and twerking popularity met new highs with the 2012 release of Diplo’s “Express Yourself.”
The music video for Diplo’s hit song popularized a newer, death-defying (ok, not really) version of twerking: the “wall twerk,” wherein the twerker inverts themselves against a wall in an assisted handstand, assumes the twerking position, and fires away. Stop before you get dizzy, and have a wet rag handy to wipe the footprints off the wall when you’re done.
In its 30-something-year span, the dance has been far from devoid of controversy. The word—and dance—officially became a viral sensation when former child star Miley Cyrus notoriously used her twerking skills to shed her squeaky clean Disney image. Though interest in the word began growing in 2011, it wasn't until Cyrus came along that twerking became a viral sensation. And it was largely because of Cyrus that the word twerk was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013—though, two years later, the definition was updated to note that its etymology went back more than 150 years.
In early 2013, 33 San Diego high school students were suspended for reportedly using school equipment to film a video in which the students twerked for the camera. Their dance moves earned them a minimum of five days suspension for violating the school’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. While it sounds a little like Footloose, there’s no doubt the sexually-charged dance move is slightly less appropriate for school than good old rock ‘n’ roll.
But it’s a scandalous idea that becomes less scandalous when considering the controversy that followed Elvis Presley’s pelvic gyrations or even Chubby Checker’s legendary Twist—both movements once condemned for their vulgarity. Those interested in trying out the dance themselves can follow a non-intimidating, step-by-step tutorial here. The less courageous can entertain themselves by replacing the word work with twerk in popular idioms (“twerking hard, or hardly twerking?”).