Teachable Racial Moment ("Twerking" Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.

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For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Miley Cyrus’s VMA—ahem—performance,  which included her attempt at the African/American dance called “twerking,” and which apparently convinced a lot of people that it was okay for women (of any race) without rhythm to try anything that involved booty-shaking.

There were a lot of parents upset that their Disney-loving kids were exposed to Miley’s sexualized antics with a man dressed like Willy Wonka on Crack Having Misplaced His Bifocals, a Big Football Finger, and Several Giant Stuffed Animals, not necessarily in that order.

But my personal favorite discussion about “twerking” was an article giving a scientific explanation of how to “twerk,” by a physician who clearly didn’t know how to “twerk,” and who might be shepherding someone into a serious and permanent physical injury. I mean, dang.

However, what has been interesting is that, in the middle of all this ink (or whatever it is, now that we don’t use ink anymore) generated about Miley and the “phenomenon” of twerking nobody has gone on record saying what needs to be said: how come black folks think “twerking” is a dance that sisters made up in the strip clubs to earn money and don’t know that West African women have been dancing like this for hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years, and not for “nasty” purposes, either?

So black folks, don’t blame Miley for getting it wrong, because you got it wrong first. Blame yourselves and your own lack of cultural and historical memory.

That’s right. We are responsible for that white girl getting up on TV disrespecting and bastardizing African American culture. This is one of those “yes, I said it” moments. And I’ll say it again until the wheels fall off.

Now, let’s continue to the educational breakdown.

Decades ago in the twentieth century, there was a genius black choreographer named Katherine Dunham. She has been called the “matriarch of black dance,” and she introduced West African dance to North America.  Honestly, she is as important to American dance history as Twyla Tharp.

Dunham influenced generations of black and white choreographers.  Most importantly, Dunham helped to create respect for the field of dance influenced by the African Diaspora and its spiritual and cultural practices. Dunham pioneered the Western dance concept of “isolation”—keeping one part of the body still while moving another—and incorporating fluid pelvic moves into mainstream dance.

Pelvic moves. Sound familiar?

But those moves were ancient and Dunham just made them modern. They were West African dance moves. Moves that had been expressed for hundreds of years. Moves that were brought over on the Middle Passage, the journey of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  For example, while in Senegal, I saw “twerking” at a wedding being set up outdoors. No one treated it as “naughty” at all, either—or “American.”

Many of us blacks who have seen Dunham’s version of West African dance here on the stages of college auditoriums, community centers, gymnasiums—or in a Hip Hop video—have no idea that what we are witnessing are Diasporic expressions that she worked for nearly seventy years to bring to us and thus, reconnect us with our culture from across the water.

You know what white people do with their profound, European cultural expressions from across the Atlantic?

Well, if it’s a dance performance, they have other white people who carefully guard the particulars of the choreography, write articles about the history of the choreographer, give money to organizations so the dance can be performed, and then, dress up in expensive outfits to go see that dance performed. Like, on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City.  

Here’s a little list of those beloved European ballets: Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve all heard of those. But how many of us have heard of Dunham’s Treemonisha or Fantasie Négre?

And forget about Lincoln Center. You know what black folks do in gratitude for Dunham’s tireless work that eventually landed her in a wheelchair (because of dance-related injuries)? We take all that hard work and her African and Caribbean anthropological research, not to mention her deep spirituality—check out this little clip of her choreographed  dance “Shango,” based on a spiritual ritual for a West African Orisha—we put some twists into it, and we take it to the strip club.

The. Strip. Club. I’m just going to let that marinate with y’all for a few seconds.

And for those without a “Magic City” nearby so brothers can make it rain on women they have no kindness or respect for, there is Youtube, where collectives like The Twerk Team use variations of their ancestors’ movements to dance to a trashy Negro’s rapping, “[Insert expletive noun for female dog] sit on my [insert expletive noun for male genitalia.]”

And no, I’m not going to link to The Twerk Team. Don’t even ask me to. Don’t even.

Certainly, Miley Cyrus looked “besides like a fool” on the VMAs, to borrow one of my grandmother’s expressions. She needed to go put some clothes on and consult her therapist, her mama, or both the next time she decided to jump up on stage. And what she was doing was about as close to “twerking” as an elephant on stilts trying to execute a plie. (Actually, I’m surprised there wasn’t an elephant on stage, since she had everything and everybody else up there.)

But Miley Cyrus believed she had the right to steal our dance moves because African Americans have not documented, archived, funded—making it rain don’t count—respected or protected our centuries-old African dance expressions the same way Americans of European descent have done for their culture from “the old country.”

Even if you have no money, you can read.  And you can voice opposition to the constant sexualization and degradation of black cultural practices, which never ends well for us.

We black folks discard our cultural power, then get mad at white people for “cultural theft.” Certainly, in the past it may have been “theft.” But these days, it’s not.  These days, it’s laziness on our part, and it’s our allowing the worst, trashiest elements to take over our cultural expressions because we don’t want to be “classist.” But it does not take a so-called “high socio-economic status” person to cherish our culture. It simply takes black self-respect and self-preservation.

Miley Cyrus has no respect for the profundity of black cultural expression—but why should she? What investment does she have in our culture? And didn’t she used to be a country singer? How many times have you seen a white country musician lift up his banjo and say, “did y’all know this is an African instrument?” 

Miley recognizes power when she sees it, and she knows enough to exploit it.  We black folks cannot throw a five-dollar bill on the ground and then get mad because someone else picks it up and puts it in the bank.  And in this case, with “twerking”—or, more accurately, “traditional West African dance,”—it’s not a five-dollar bill we’ve discarded. It’s a piece of gold. And if Miley sells enough records, quite possibly, it could be a piece of platinum.

17 thoughts on “Teachable Racial Moment ("Twerking" Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.

  1. Thank you for writing this article. I do agree with you that we do not take enough care in protecting and uplifting our history. However, I do not believe that if Katherine Dunham was properly archived and put on at the Schomburg Center, twerking would not exist or would not be at risk for appropriation. It has alway been popular to paint Black culture in the worse light possible, because it is the mainstream (i.e. mostly White) that buys into it.

    I cannot speak for the entire country, but in New York there are many institutions that are preserving and constantly reviving Black culture. The truth is Miley isn’t going to make money off of remix of Revelations, so she chose twerking.

  2. Let us not forget Asadata Dafora and Talley Beatty, both great teachers. I thing Talley learned from Katherine Dunham. I came from Dayton and was a friend of Geraldine Blunden who started DCDC. She told a lot of us dance junkies about early pioneers in dance.

  3. Not all black people throw their culture away; some of us are learners and really appreciate our ancestors legacies. White people been stealing for centuries and willlcontinue to steal. U blaming the victims . That’s like tellin a women she shouldnt wear those clothes cause she gonna get raped. They do it anyway.your beef should be with mylie not the entire bla ck race.

    1. OMG! Why is it everytime someone starts a discussion like this, a woman has to compare it to getting raped? That’s such a cheap, over-used comparison. You know what? Yes, sometimes a victim is (partially) at fault (NOT IN RAPE, but in other situations). You can’t run around and behave any way you want and get mad because there are consequences. You literally play around with fire and think you shouldn’t ever get burned. That is NOT how the world works.
      As for the black/victim comment, MOST black people I have ever met (and I am part black) had a limited education on black history and those that DID have any knowledge were so disrespectful about it. Yes, in order to combat racism, we DO have to take some responsibility for our lives. You know how I fight it? By making good choices, by not feeding negative stereotypes, and by trying to not only educate myself but honor history. That way, when I meet a racist and they start throwing up that blacks are uneducated criminals, I can throw my vocabulary and my clean criminal record in their face.
      So please, stop with the “rape” scenario. It doesn’t apply and simple minds will start believing that it does. It also diminishes the seriousness of “rape” each time someone tries to use it in an argument.
      As for “stealing”, art and entertainment is about taking other things and making them into something new. It is only stealing when people don’t give credit to the originators. There are no new ideas, only new ways of presenting them. It’s not about be influenced by the art (or as you call it “stealing”), it is about taking it and making it vulgar, which all races have allowed to happen.
      This article was dead on and each culture, race, demographic needs to start taking some responsibility for how the world views them and how they are treated. You want respect, you fight for it and earn it. You don’t wander around going “They hurt me. Give me something.”

  4. Okay dear, thanks for writing this but first let me say, your initial statement of blaming Black folks for not knowing our history is inaccurate and worse–once gain victimizing the victim, and oh so such an easy thing to do. Instead of taking on poor Black folks who have been victimized for centuries, I dare you to take on the corporate world who has been doing the vicitmization for the last centruy at least and possibly longer (if I knew my history better.) .

    It is so easy to kick a dog when it is down and so so many people from you to the US Black President, the supposedly most powerful man in the world to Bill Cosby to my neighbors who keep beating up on poor black moms “who don’t know how to cook.” are doing it. Its in fad now, I guess especially now that we have a Black President and reportedly live in a post racial country -, (world).

    (And all this beating up of the beaten–remember Rodney King–how those powerful, white police officers kicked him while he was down–armed with guns and batons and whatever else and white and male, US and corporate supremacy without acknowledging the very powerful institutions who are making sure poor Black and other women and men don’t know their history in order to dominate and exploit us and our white brothers and sisters for profit and powr to the detriment of all. )

    So sis join humanity and show a little love and understanding for yourself and your Black brothers and sisters. There are numerous reasons “we” may not know our history–billions of dollars and guns and whips and murder, death and genocide have all been geared toward dismantling us from the knowledge of our selves and our culture.

    In fact to tell you the truth sis, most “Black African descendants” don;t even know they are Black because the oligarchy has divided all ofd us so successfully for profit and domination about the Black African roots of humanity. We are all Balck African desncendants! Ciley Mirus and Jay Z and Beyonce and Chakira and our Aisan Brothers and sisteres; but will save this discussion for another day.

    Second, Black Americans do know their history and they don;t need to know about Katherine Dunham for this. We experience our roots to our Black African dance ancestors directly through our Black culture today and communities. Our beautiful [censored by PR]* have been the centers of display in our dance now and for hundreds of years., We don’t need a history lesson to figure that out–we see it every day when we go to the club or teach ourselves how to move in our homes and neighborhoods-inventing new dances–all which have their roots in great part in Mother Africa. (And which all then get coopted by the corporate industrial complex for profit–big profits and domination over us–part of this domination is to create white and black so as to repartee us. the reality is that we are all one.

    Now everybody is talkin’ about Miley Cirus and that abomination.

    But first lets acknowledge that Miley Cirus is foremost a creation of a corporate world that is pushing not art but something commercialized version of so called art for big bucks and for corporate domination and hegemony over our people and all people. We are all being victimized–white, black, latino and asian ion by the powerful corporate structure that rules our minds, determines our self image, manages “Miley Cirusses and Beyonces; and Jay-Z’s” etc etc for profits and continued hegemony and control over us.

    SO this is to me not about Miley Cirus the person but about the corporate industrialized complex of music and arts –so called–for money–not real music and arts–but the commercailized brand.”Miley Cirus” or whatever her real name is , who like other financially successful “artists” has allowed herself to be used by these corporations to make money and also to dominate us and to continue to spread notions of the superiority of some people and a certain way of life. All of which is a lie and is resulting in creating a power structure that is destroying our very species while a very few profit in the short run.

    So okay there are lots of folks out there who are willing to allow themsleves to be used by powerful corporations and ostensibly so they will survive and make money themselves and maybe to some extent to fulfill their own ambition as well–although I don;t know to what extent they get to express themselves and are just used by the system. We sometimes see the results of this system in the people that it destroys–Marilyn Monroe, Billie HOliday,Lisa Lopez? You put the names in here; I don;t follow pop culture. But anyway, people need to survive so this industrial complex can find willing victims for its machinery every day.

    So this corporate complex has now used “Miley Cirus” or whoever she is (what is her real name and who is she?) to put a white female American face on Black American and Black global culture. It is not the first time and last time this has been done.

    Did they succeed? Despite the criticism, are they going to make money on it? Sounds like it, since everyone is talking about it.

    We need to try and educate and organize ourselves about and against the cultural exploitation and manipulation being perpetrated by big corporations and powerful entities on us as people. The cultural superiority they are trying to portray and the cultural denigration of some others.

    We need to realize that this is being done to all people black white Indigenous and Asian to divide and conquer us. None of us are superior and none of us are benefiting from corporate exploitation–not even the folks getting rich. They are creating a world which is failing all of us–making us sick, destroying our earth our home which we need to live and pitting us against each other which is also frustrating our attempts at survival. We are one; all people are one and we don;t need to exploit or denigrate or form groups for this purpose to survive–not girls and women, not Black and white, and we don;t need to commercialize our beautiful sexuality for money or to survive or for ambition. We need to celebrate our sexuality–not let corporations harness it to get rich and control and dominate us–and we need to enjoy it as well as our cultural diversity and in particular the heritage of the Black African descendancy of our species!.

    Love our beautiful Black butts and little tiny waists and our culture including dance that celebrates it; hate the corporate commercialization and exploitation of it.

    *Dear commenter, I don’t allow profanity on my blog. If you read the posts, you’ll see I don’t use it myself, either. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ll return. Take care, HFJ

  5. Thank you for writing this article, unfortunately it will not reach those who are uninformed and could benefit. Generally speaking as a people we seem to have very little interest in our past or roots, because we are so stuck in the notion that we descended from enslaved people. One would think that considering the degradation of enslavement would send us scouring all the history possible to uplift all that we contributed to the world on all levels. It is the slave holder that should be ashamed not the slave.

  6. Hi, So, I am really not trying to be insensitive when asking this… but this is not the first time i have seen a black blogger refer to Miley twerking as an insult. First off, I will agree with you on the fact that she did a horrible job at it, but i am putting that aside. And second, I am agreeing with Martha Whittaker about blaming the corporate world for that whole show.. but… a question comes up, when I see your post, and this one…

    what is wrong with a white woman twerking? with historical context aside, because as you mentioned earlier, i dont think history is being respected by either Miley or the twerk team, but why is it wrong for a white woman to dance like a black woman? and vice versa?

    I can say, that from a white protestant background, there is a liveliness and acceptance of emotion and body in the “black culture” ….(oh i know i just lumped a whole bunch of folks into one category, but i am just being real general here) …..especially in the south, that is to be admired and striven for. This is not a new thing, just one example, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones (and all of rock and roll) taking cues from the blues.

    I am not saying exploitation is ok, but imitation is the highest form of flattery right? So, why is it offensive for a white woman to twerk?

    I imagine that the west africans who were doing those dances were not doing them just for history’s sake. I imagine they were doing them because they made them feel good, they helped them communicate something, and it meant something to them…

    just like the blues singers… those songs meant something to them… not history, not that they were black, but they have a very universal meaning and feeling, that move me, the woman with the least amount of rhythm.

    I am really just trying to understand. I hope you respond either here or to my email.

    1. Hi there:

      Okay, I’m going to assume that you are not being deliberately disingenuous here and proceed. In doing so, I’m going to be as honest as I can, and as such, I might say something that seems insensitive or just downright rude, but I don’t mean to be that way, and I apologize in advance.

      First, whenever white artists–if you can call Miley Cyrus that–imitate or appropriate black American/African culture, within approximately five minutes, the cultural roots are forgotten or just downright lied about. For example, Jazz. Blues. Gospel music. The banjo. Country fiddling. Paula Deen’s entire retinue of southern recipes. I could keep going here.

      You mention Elvis Presley, but how many times did Elvis Presley tell someone that he, in fact, was NOT the King of Rock and Roll and that Rock and Roll was a black invention? How many white Americans even know that? This is not my opinion. All one has to do is read an American ethnomusicology book.

      Now, that said, I don’t have any problems with culture traveling, as long as when it travels up a road, the white artist doesn’t put dynamite on the road to keep anyone from traveling *back.* For example, I absolutely love Bonnie Raitt who plays wonderful blues guitar, but she always gives credit to black blues musicians. She never tries to argue with you that white musicians helped to create the blues. She is clear that it is an African American cultural production. That’s all most black folks want.

      No one ever wonders where European Classical Dance comes from, or wonders who were the most profound composers of those ballets. Surely, ballet is free for anyone to perform, but how many black children get into the best ballet schools–and how many principal dancers have you seen? So while I think it’s great that we’d like a “cultural exchange,” it gets a bit tiresome that Americans of Europeans insist constantly that “culture should belong to all of us”–but then, remain gatekeepers when it comes to their culture.

      In the case of Miley Cyrus, what I want is for white artists to stop displaying the worst elements of black culture–i.e. “twerking”–and conflating it with the public face of black America. I didn’t care that she couldn’t dance. I cared that she put on a pornographic display that featured black women dressed up as furry animal props–and then after she did that, she disrespected hundreds of years of sacred African cultural production. However, she was “taught” that sacred African cultural production by African American women–so shame on them. I think I have made it clear that I feel the blame lies with them. We don’t have to prostitute our culture for a few dollars and fifteen minutes of proverbial fame.

      I hope I have answered your question. If not, well, I did my best, and thank you so much for reading the blog. I hope you will come back.

      Take care,

  7. My first reaction to Miley was that she can’t be blamed for being so stupid, because after all, she is Billy Ray Cyrus’s daughter — the man who popularized the mullet hairstyle and who, after that, is famous for two things only, “Achy Breaky Heart,” and selling his child’s soul to the rat-god Disney, so there you go. Then again, Susan Sontag says that ignorance is not a viable ethical position after a certain age, so once Hannah Montana has aged out of her stupidity, which she clearly has now done, she bears full responsibility for the rocky road to hell she walks on. Then again, my Granny told me not to judge folks, so I’ll hush up.

  8. I, too, take slight offense at the general indictment of Blacks at large regarding this “twerking” phenomenon. First, as a New Orleanian, I know very well, just as my fellow NOLA citizens do, that the term “twerk” was originated in New Orleans and originally referred to a different dance movement. Secondly, the NOLA dance scene is often well aware that the origins of the dance movement *now* known as twerking has West African origins, as the many of the dance moves most popular in our local traditions were derived from the Congo Square meetings and such (thus havings specific and obvious African origins). And all of this local terpsichorean development was in tandem to the work and studies of Ms. Duhnam – she wasn’t the only one dancing. And although her work was very important to the inclusion of those moves into the classical dance catalogue, she wasn’t the only one guarding traditions. Research into the dance moves of many of the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs that parade in the streets of NOLA and at other festivals and events will evidence that. Granted, not all Blacks, or even NOLA Blacks are aware of these histories, but the general indictment of us all is rather unfair.

  9. Shut the [censored by PR] * up. What the hell u talking about. We did not make miley cyrus to start twerking,it wasn’t our fault. We created it&thats when ppl started coming along to join. Until this no good for nothin miley cyrus came in&started shaking her non existent [censored by PR]*. Sometimes I think(no offence)that white ppl tryna steal we black people’s moves. I’ve seen some white ppl who can twerk amazingly.&there u are chatting [censored by PR]* about us blacks being the cause of miley cyrus twerking. U don’t even know what ur talking about. Miley is literally disgracing herself.

    * Dear, commenter, I don’t allow profanity on my blog. If you read the posts, you’ll see I don’t use it myself, either. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ll return. Take care, HFJ

  10. This debate is never ending, not only because as African Americans we do not understand how we have been shaming ourselves of our own culture. Before studying the techniques of Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham, I always wondered as a dancer why must we let our white counterparts take everything we have (Jazz, swing, tango). Of course, we were never taught to take ownership of anything, but how could we when our own country was stolen from us, but that’s a completely different debate. In the context of dancing, growing up it was a sin to shake your rum and pop your back, but the minute it was for a recital or for show, the whites (specifically Europeans), were fascinated with how we could pop, lock, and interchange between stiff movements and then move as freely as we wanted to. It all goes back to how can we sustain our own cultural customs, if we never learned how truly powerful we are.

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