by Tanicia Pratt
As Black women, we’ve all been consumed by the politics of ‘twerking’. On one hand, Christianity and neo-colonial society threaten our respectability if we engage in such behavior. The gyration or contortion of our hips appears to outline our identity: uneducated, classless and seeking male sexual attention. On the other hand, we are tempted to move in this way. From young, we are allured to join ourselves in Ringplay and allow our bodies the freedom to move to the rhythm of a beat.
In high school, I experienced the politics of this first hand. One lunch hour, my friends and I were having fun in the classroom - whining our hips to the dancehall sounds of “Dutty Wine”. I recorded this moment on my digital camera, uploading it later that night to the internet; never foreseeing the backlash we would receive in the weeks to come.
A student’s parent called into the school furiously after catching him with our video. Our innocent actions adopted from music, culture and our environment were used to diminish our characters. I was suspended and stripped of prefect duties. Ironically, weeks before the fiasco, I was awarded top BJC results on the island of Grand Bahama. My academic achievements were all overshadowed by the sour perception of my classmates and myself, dancing on social media.
While my experience was traumatizing, I am still fortunate that my suspension and stripping were the only punishments received. In 2013, a group of female students from St. John’s College went through a similar ordeal with more damaging consequences. That year, the entire graduating class suffered the cancellation of their Emerald Ball and Graduation Ceremony by the Bishop of the Anglican School Diocese. In the NB12 report, the administration claimed their ruling was due to the misrepresentation and disregard of the Anglican ethos. However, a parent pointed out, in the report, that the dances on the YouTube video were no different than the dances during the school’s Junkanoo Rush Out, a few months earlier. The message these teenagers and I received during this time was clear: the movement of the Black female body is inherently inappropriate; and will not be tolerated under its own free will.
As I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, I saw a video being circulated that would later remind me of the St. John’s students and my own ordeal. Vernell McIntosh, a Bahamian professional dancer, was featured in Creed Film’s recent video “Pump Water Gyalz”. With over 150 shares on Facebook, the video received mixed reviews – some positive, some negative, but most of it being light comedy captioned with crying-laughing emojis.
Vernell’s Instagram feed is filled with home and behind-the-scenes videos, often featuring the rolling of her hips with moves we know in the West to be twerking, whining and bubbling. With the negativity and shame that surrounds Black women dancing in this way, I wanted to get a better understanding of Vernell’s artistic intentions and her experience as a Black female dancer.
One summer, while accompanying my Grandfather on errands, I was asked by him: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “A singer, dancer and actress”. He flared up in a fit of rage and said, “You een need to be like ya mudda, trynna whine up like snake and gallop like horse. Find a real job; that’s a bunch of ish”. I neglected and denounced whining or shaking up as a “real” form of dance. In fact, I vilified and demonized that type of movement. This was further ingrained when I became involved with someone who hated dancing on the whole. Not even a simple shake was allowed; I would have to report to him every other day to ensure I wasn’t reverting to my childhood days of locking myself in the room and whining up. It was difficult. I felt like I was living an “inhabiting paradox”. Deep down whining up was an innate part of me but here I was suppressing it for the sake of “religion” and for the sake of a “relationship”.
In the Bahamas, the perspectives on African dance are slightly different between men and women. Both sexes often view such dances as sexually provocative. However, the root feeling of this idea is split between both groups.
As a young girl, I’ve experienced repeated shame from female elders for engaging in African Dance. Matriarchal figures lead me to believe that shaking one’s hips or whining one’s waist was inherently ‘fresh’, ‘vulgar’ and my favorite, ‘unladylike’. To them, how good you can move your body describes how many sexual partners you’ve had. And a woman who is a “lady”… a woman who respects herself does not partake in activities of the ‘lower class’. There is even a name we give these dancers in our culture: “Jungaless”. This term derives from the word, “jungle” and is rooted in racist notions that Black women - who dance in this way - are uncivilized, wild animals. These ideas and terms we label on Black women are dangerous and rooted in European views that every facet of African culture is ghetto, pagan, and hyper-sexual. The judgment or shame that is projected from Black women, by Black women, represents feelings of insecurity, fear, and jealousy – masked by the coveting of Biblical principles. Eventually, this shame becomes an ongoing cycle meant to ensure future generations of Black women do not stray from traditional values of colonial society.
And from the men? Heterosexual Bahamian men also view female African dance as vulgar, loose and the likes. Yet, their feelings are rooted in their own pleasures and consumption. Whether women are dancing with each other or alone, men generally assume that women are seeking their attention, sexual gratification and validation. If a man were to be denied from said dancer, she would be met with verbal harassment, “You was dancing ‘cus you wanted me to look, right!?” These views held by men assume ownership of the Black female body, giving them the ‘right’ to approach or sexually assault women as they wish. Black women are often entrapped by these views, making it difficult to convey what is indeed their right to cultural expression. But what more do we expect from The Bahamas, a country once colonized by the British – where our African ancestors were forced to adopt Anglo and other European ideals of culture and faith? Even in our Junkanoo parades - meant to rebel against the colonial systems - we police the amount of shaking and whining a female parader can do. As Black people, we have internalized the European gaze on African culture. Thus, we are uncomfortable when fully embracing our African roots.
One, because I, as a Black woman gifted with hips from my creator, CAN! Twerking and whining for me is a direct statement of owning my sensuality, thus owning my INTERPRETATION of FEMININE POWER, often vilified by the misogyny of society and religion. Two, I truly believe it’s one of the most ancient forms of dance in the world. It’s one of the many things that connect me, as a black woman, to my African ancestors, to my African roots. It was one of the many attributes the colonizers and European Christians flogged, beaten and “purged” out of us; stripping us of our identity and true self. Thirdly, I revere twerking and whining as “real” forms of dance; as professional, complex skills that require an intense amount of training and focus. So when I’m dancing in my IG videos I’m not thinking “Oh, hey random dude I don’t know, look at my ass jiggle!” No, I’m thinking “Finally, everyone, be inspired by the fluid movement of my waist, the intricate ticks of my hips, the complex combos that took me weeks to learn.
The act of twerking - isolation of the butt, became popular in the New Orleans’ Bounce genre. However, the origins of twerking can be traced to the West African dance called “Mapouka” in Côte d’Ivoire.
West Indian dances like whining or ‘bubbling’ are popular in Soca, Samba, Dancehall and other Caribbean genres; these moves often including the isolation of the waist, originate from Central Africa. Whining is strikingly similar to the traditional Ndombolo dance, popular in the Congolese Soukous and Makolongulu genre. These dances were not an act of provocation. In fact, Mapouka is said to be an act of celebration, joy and worship to God. Since the Atlantic Slave Trade, remnants of West & Central African dances can still be found among descendants throughout the African diaspora, celebrating our heritage and continuing our legacy.
I’m very disheartened when Black men, and society in general, support and glorify white women for doing things that black women do on the regular and are vilified or slut-shamed for. For instance, a white woman can quit her job as a teacher and decide to twerk, full-time online, and an array of individuals of different ethnicity support her. But the minute that a Black woman, who is still in her profession, does something like that as a hobby… something that is her actual BIRTHRIGHT, she’s slut-shamed for it.
Recently, the Western trend of twerking has been raised to mainstream popularity by non-Black women who see it as nothing more than something trendy, profitable and culturally daring. It is disturbingly interesting that the Twerk Team, an African-American female duo who made twerking popular in the early 2010s, were written off as ratchet or ghetto while Miley Cyrus’ appropriation of twerking, (and black culture in general) spiked her visibility and music sales. It appears that African cultures are only acceptable and free from scrutiny when they are packaged with a European or racially-ambiguous face. Most times, the perpetrators of appropriation fail to bring interesting reinterpretations or exceptional skill levels to the table. Only reminding us that as Black people, we are not free to own anything… not even the culture we’ve created.
As a Muslim, I believe in celebrating my culture once it does not contradict the Tawheed (belief and worship of one God) of my religion. Therefore, I find no gripe in this aspect of my heritage. I now understand the significance of what it is Black women are doing and how Vernell’s persistence to follow female African dance is an intentional rebellion against the Colonial-European gaze. From my perspective, a Black woman who embraces her heritage despite racially-motivated norms is a very punk and political message.
What people should understand is: what an individual chooses to do with their body has absolutely nothing to do with them. That their perception of that person is a direct representation or reflection of themselves, their upbringing, their morale and ethos, their past experiences with similar people or instances, and their insecurities. Therefore, so as long as these individuals aren’t bringing direct trauma or harm their way, for Christ’s sake, let the people whine in peace.
I have learned not to hate what I see, but to love it for what it signifies. Also, I have learned to separate my personal bias from the external action. When I see a woman dancing in public, I am not jealous, disgusted or judgmental – I am happy and oftentimes intrigued. As a woman, I find my sexuality and femininity to be powerful. So powerful that I do not share my talents in public; especially among a culture of men who have yet to break free from their internalized colonial ideas of Black women. Nonetheless, I applaud Vernell and others like her who are doing the work to combat societal norms with grace and informed intention. It is important, as people of the African diaspora, despite our religious beliefs or any other, to be able to decolonize our current notions of twerking, whining and all traditions of African origin. This can only be done by learning our history and constantly correcting our judgments whenever they arise. You may not wish to give up your values of sexuality or faith, and this is fine. But perhaps, instead, try to redirect your internalized gaze to one that celebrates your culture and its roots.
Tanicia Pratt is a writer, poet and performer from Nassau, Bahamas. Her life is a gray area; often reflected in her work + identity. She is unpredictable. Lover of ‘whatever’s interesting’...and coffee. Tanicia holds a BA in Marketing from The University of the Bahamas. Creative Director of Gray Area.
Vernell McIntosh is a professional dancer, writer and performer from Tarpum Bay, Eleuthera. Her interests in dancing and performing began at the tender age of 5. She channeled her passion of dancing by joining Tarpum Bay Primary School’s Junkanoo team , “Invaders Junkanoo Team”, as well as the liturgical dance team for The Church of God Prophecy. She currently resides in Nassau, Bahamas, pursuing her Bachelors at The University of Bahamas.