Pop Culture

Black Women’s Dance: The Sacred Origins of Twerk

Religious studies scholar Elizabeth Perez argues twerk exists “within Black Atlantic choreographic modalities” (17) emergent from the Caribbean and Latin American traditions. Viewing twerk through a western lens renders twerk “ratchet” or “ghetto,” delegitimizing the dance as a legitimate art form. When contextualized as a Black Atlantic art form, twerk appears the descendant of sacred dances in the worship of Afro-diasporic deities in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti.

According to Perez, twerk disrupts sexual, spiritual, and particularly in the American South, gender norms imposed on Afro-descendant people:

Twerk not only tweaks social mores; it violates the politics of respectability that continue to demand chastity, industry, and decorum from Black women in exchange for basic civility and full citizenship… Twerk may yet come to be appreciated for its potential to articulate linkages between Afro-Diasporic communities with shared histories of domination. (Higginbotham 1993).4 (17)

Twerk gets treated as sexual by media that oversimplifies Black cultural practices. For example, media focus on twerk within the strip clubs of the urban South distorts its athleticism. A similar erasure occurred to Black and Latina women during the burlesque era. Once a dance shared amongst Afro-descendant people through shared experience, twerk gets decontextualized through the phenomena of digital technology.

Is twerk Black?

Always a diasporic dance, twerk emerged in the urban South at sites of multi-ethnic Blackness like New Orleans, Miami, and Atlanta. Twerk in the U.S. descends from the movements of earlier Black music genres like blues and jazz. Black dance in the U.S. has an even earlier history. Movements similar to twerk would mark celebratory occasions and festivals through dance.

Twerk has similar motions to dances practiced throughout the African continent. However, Perez cautions against the immediate impulse to draw links between contemporary Black American dances and indigenous African traditional dances. Indeed, Perez imports the North American context as relevant to the emergence of twerk. From this perspective, the broader Black Atlantic comes into view as the predecessor to twerk in the western context.

For example, some of the movements of twerk have similar effects to Jamaican whinin’. These movements enable women to communicate sexual agency as a performance of “desirability, sexual self-sufficiency, and economic independence” (21). Similar movements come into play for dances and music in Haiti and Cuba. Throughout the diaspora, twerk communicates a narrative about “emphasizing group membership, the free movement of forceful Black bodies, and Afro-Diasporic counter-narratives.” (22). Historically, such movements have been suppressed as many colonial regimes did not allow dance.

Is twerking sexual or sacred?

Black women’s bodies and their dance get interpreted through multiple lenses, incurring different implications for a dancer. In some contexts, Black women’s dance has sacred properties. In others, their dance gets treated as “incarnating the very sins committed through enslavement, systemic oppression, and sexual exploitation: lust, sloth, and gluttony.

At one time, Black women’s dance served a spiritual function for communities that worship African deities. Their dance contributed to festivals, funerals, and other rituals. It communicated both religious and political messages. Indeed, dance for Black women can promote good physical and mental health, so its demonization invites more harm than it prevents.

Unless otherwise stated, insights summarized here come from Elizabeth Perez’s “The ontology of twerk.”