The Art of the Twerk: There's more to twerking than just ass-shaking

When anti-slut shaming activist and known voluptuous lady Amber Rose was on the television show "Late Night With Seth Meyers," she told the host that her young son saw her twerk one time and thought it was hilarious.

"Now I twerk for him all the time," she said. "He loves it. That's like our bonding moment."

This was, apparently, a scandalous enough statement to briefly upset media outlets like the New York Daily News, and Entertainment Weekly. For Baltimore burlesque dancer Bunny Vicious, it's a non-issue.

"Growing up, we used to [twerk] all the time," she says.

Her religious mom would even do it to gospel music.

"It was a happy, joyous thing," she says.

Twerking seems simple, but it's not. It's a very specific way of wiggling, twisting, undulating your hips and ass that requires the work of a lot of different muscles in order to seem simple and effortless.

Vicious is teaching "Twerking Thursdays! A Twerkshop Series," a twerking class over the next four Thursdays (June 23 and 30 and July 7 and 14) from 6:30 - 8 p.m. at Sugar in Hampden. Vicious intends to give attendees a better understanding of what twerking is—and what it isn't.

"I want them to know that twerk is not all about sex. It's not as simple as bending over and shaking your butt. There's so much more than shaking that ass," she says. "I feel like twerk is one of those things that kind of bridges everything together."

She first taught the class at a Caribbean burlesque festival in Jamaica and was surprised to find that most of her students were middle aged white guys. She didn't have a problem with that, but she knew that if she was going to attract a nonblack audience, she'd have to rethink her teaching method.

"It dawned on me that black people don't need to know how to twerk, it's already in their system," she says. "I changed it up. I said I'm going to have to include history, I'm going to include appreciation versus appropriation."

That's the thing about twerking: people tend to simplify it into something purely sexual, ignoring its deep history with origins in West African dance. Bunny's class is part history lesson and part dance instruction.

"The history of twerk, what it is and what it isn't and where it got Columbused," she says. "There are things that you don't know that your body remembers. I feel like twerk is one of those things. It's been around for centuries. It had its purpose before Miley Cyrus touched it."

A refresher: Cyrus made a name for herself a few years ago by showing up at various awards shows and performances and gyrating, somewhat awkwardly, and passing it off as "twerking." It was the tipping point for twerk, which had long been a well-known form of dance in the black community, making its way into hip-hop culture. Queer New Orleans bounce performer Big Freedia also helped popularize twerking.

"I would say in 2013 when Miley Cyrus did her move, that wasn't twerking. It was trembling," she says, laughing. "After the Miley Cyrus incident, because we live in a fast-paced world, the media had to scramble to explain it. They left out that it's centuries old, that it's a combination of moves. It's been taken out of context. I do feel like a lot of times white performers will take a forbidden black element and simplify it for mass consumption."

Much of black culture draws from different parts of the diaspora, and Vicious says her class will encompass this, starting in the '90s in New Orleans with bounce music. Vicious says that there are actually strong similarities between Baltimore club and New Orleans bounce—each style of music implores you to move in a specific way.

"I feel like it goes hand in hand," she says. "When I put it on, there's nothing to do but bounce. It's a physical interpretation of bounce."

She'll also teach the Punta, a dance with Latin roots. She learned it from an older woman she worked with a while back: "One of the cleaning ladies would bring me food from Columbia. She said you look like you can do the punta. She got down. She's a little short somebody—I loved it."

Vicious is a self-taught dancer who has been performing burlesque since 2011 and is one of the Baltimore area's few black burlesque dancers. She says she's not quite sure why burlesque has never caught on with black people. "We've tried," she says, noting that there is a somewhat larger black burlesque scene in D.C. "A lot of black folks see stripping as stripping. Burlesque is arts stripping."

While she wants would-be students to come ready to learn, it's also important that they have fun and dance with abandon.

"Even if you're dancing off beat, just do it and fuck what everybody else thinks," she says.

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