These images of Miley Cyrus above do not depict the act of twerking.
Unfortunately, though, she is up for TIME's "Person of the Year" award, supposedly for her "twerk-filled performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards," which "set off a chain of memorable entertainment moments."
But here's the thing: She's never actually twerked at all. And even if she had, there is a slim chance she understands the African roots of the dance that she's come to so shamelessly own.
Twerking is a complex and challenging dance move that originated in West Africa in the 1990s. It does not involve simply bending over and shifting your booty from left to right. As Christiana Mbakwe wrote, "It takes tremendous skill and attention." Shannon Givens, 25, said that it's extremely difficult to master. "Cold fact. Miley Cyrus is not twerking. She is moving side to side."
Real twerking looks something like this:
It seems like a new trend, but it's been around for awhile. In the book Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music In Africa, author Simon Akindes writes that twerking has its roots in West Africa. In the Ivory Coast, it's known as mapouka, and and they've been dancing it since 1997 (at the latest), when it hit the dance and music scene. The government temporarily baned the dance from all media, deeming it too provactive. The ban was lifted in 1999 when a new government took power.
The New York Times wrote back in 2000, "Banned from Ivoirian television — chased away by officials in neighboring countries like Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin — mapouka spread nevertheless along the West African coast, from Dakar to Kinshasa, in the last couple of years. The dance — which focuses on, though is not limited to, the surprisingly difficult act of wiggling one's buttocks without moving one's hips — also became an endless source of discussions and newspaper ruminations on culture, sex, women and men, especially here in the Ivory Coast."
Givens, who lives in Harlem and is studying at Long Island University's school of public health, was born and raised in the Sumner, Mississippi. She said that twerking migrated from West Africa into Caribbean culture before making its way to the American South, where it mainly picked up in Atlanta and among the Louisiana Bounce music scene.
Mbakwe wrote, "I’ve seen variants of twerking my entire life. I remember watching the elderly women dance at the predominantly West African church I attended growing up. If the right 'praise' song was sung, they’d grab a white handkerchief and dance their way to the front of the church. They’d rotate their hips and bounce their bums until they were barely above the ground."
The dance is inextricably intertwined with music. In the book The Modernity Bluff: Crime, Consumption, and Citizenship in Cote D'Ivoire, author Sasha Newell claims that mapouka has its own musical genre.
In modern day American music, praisings of booty shaking are endless.
The band Queen declared that "fat-bottomed girls make the world go 'round." Rapper Mos Def dedicated his song "Ms. Fat Booty" to a woman whose posterior he praised for being "so fat that you could see it from the front." Eminem, in "Ass Like That," described — quite viscerally — his physical reaction to a seeing nice round behind. And who could forget, "Girl, shake that laffy taffy?" Sir Mix-a-Lot does not even need to be quoted; we know what he likes, (and he cannot lie.)
Women, too, are proud of their voluptuous behinds and understand their power. Beyonce coined the term "bootylicious," warning men that they weren’t ready for all her "jelly," and Fergie claimed that her "hump, [her] lovely lady lump" could get a man "love drunk."
The cultural ties to music and dance are undeniable, but a deeper look at the move reveals that its popularity has scientific roots as well.
Biologist Alfred Kinsey argued that a man’s passion for a woman’s rear end comes from the fact that the female buttocks is the primary visual feature during sex for primates, our close ancestors, who do the deed "doggystyle." Dr. Lionel Tiger, anthropology professor at Rutgers University, said, "The posterior view implies a level of intimacy." On the the pelvic rotation of the twerk, he said, "Primates like to see objects move." He believes that twerking is a way for the woman to signal to a man that she is primed for sex. "It’s very literal. We’re animals."
Another explanation is that voluptuous rear ends are a female-specific trait. They result from estrogen, which encourages the girl’s body, after puberty, to store fat in the hips and the butt, giving us girls all that "junk in the trunk" and "all that ass inside them jeans," to use Fergie’s poeticism. It’s a certain type of fat, though, containing adipose tissue, which stores energy for reproduction. Devendra Singh, a professor of psychology largely known for his work regarding the science of human attraction, wrote that — whereas a woman assesses a male’s desirability as a mate based on his control over resources — "physical attractiveness [for males] is largely a reflection of reliable cues to a woman’s reproductive success."
So a curvy behind signals to a male that the female is able to get pregnant, carry to term, and successfully lactate in order to feed the baby, hence, helping the male’s offspring survive. (What would Darwin say about twerking?)
This might explain why the New York Times wrote that in the Ivory Coast, "As young women sought to outperform one another, a large posterior became de rigueur." The dance "made plumpness fashionable even among Westernized young women who had toyed with slimness."
Twerking incorporates global cultures and histories, the freedom of sexual expression, and the evolutionary science of attraction. It transcends cultural boundaries and time periods.
It's too bad that it's been reduced to a Miley Cyrus joke. Especially when she wasn't even twerking to begin with.