If you’ve paid attention to music news of late, or have spent any time in the company of a teenager or club-hopping 20-something, you’ve probably heard the term “twerking.” A lot. Like most slang, the word has evolved from its origins over a few pop culture cycles to a point where it’s largely divested of all context by now. As such, twerking has become a catch-all for an overtly sexualized style of dancing wherein one manipulates the hips and posterior in an often hypnotic and physics-defying bounce. And while twerking has been a mainstay in the club scenes of the South for years now, it’s finally wending its way into the crossover territory, where all subcultures go to get played out.
You may remember back in May when a few dozen high school students in San Diego were suspended for filming themselves twerking in a YouTube video. More recently, Miley Cyrus stirred up controversy with her video for “We Can’t Stop,” in which she and a team of backup dancers performed a sort of twerk — the latter considerably more successful than the slight-of-frame Cyrus. This past month, Big Freedia — the breakout star of the New Orleans bounce world, a style of electronic hip-hop characterized by its frenetic pace and call-and-response vocals rooted in Mardi Gras chanting — was in the news when she toured with the decidedly more staid Postal Service. Many uninitiated fans took to social media to complain about the “shocking” performance with none-too-subtle racial undertones.
For whatever reason, twerking is finally having its national moment this year, long after New Orleans DJ Jubilee released “Do The Jubilee All” in 1993, and after twerking as a concept, and an instruction in dance and hip-hop music, filtered its way northward, where it became a staple of the dirty South rap tracks of Ying Yang Twins and company in the 2000s. The turning point likely came last year when savvy culture-vulture Diplo and bounce artist Nicky Da B released “Express Yourself,” and an accompanying video of twerking dance moves that inspired thousands to record their own attempts at replicating the moves. What happened next wasn’t surprising: baby twerking videos, animal twerking videos, and so on — and the attendant overexposure that comes with any dance craze.
A pair of local dance nights want to bring the focus back from the overarching trend, and place it on the music behind it. On Friday, Aug. 31, the Good Life hosts Twerk Fest 3, headlined by Miami booty bass pioneer DJ Magic Mike, with support from Boston DJs Amadeezy, ABD, and Kidd Drunkadelic, and a twerking dance squad the Tru Twerkers. On
Aug. 24, the recurring party Controversy at Club 1254 has a Caribbean Carnival, with Jamila Afrika, a.k.a DJ Lady J, Nate Bluhm, and contest MC Father Tarik
The latter party frequently holds twerking contests with cash prizes that inspire some truly awe-inspiring moves, of both the twerking variety, and other forms of dancing pulled from Caribbean and Southern dance cultures, like wining, and daggering. Sapphira Cristal, a drag performer at Controversy and Jacque’s among others, hosts, and occasionally competes in the twerk contests herself.
Cristal comes from Houston, where this kind of music has long been in vogue, she says. The wide range of styles played at nights like this provides for a broader palate of dance moves to draw from, which is what leads to such creativity on the dance floor, twerking or otherwise. “I enjoy it better, just because I can’t dance to one beat. So when you go to a club playing EDM, it’s like, I can only do this for so long.
“The last time, there was such a ferocious twerker, she literally got on her head and started shaking her legs, and everything was twerking at one time,” Cristal explained.
Afrika, another Southern transplant, from Miami, has seen twerking and its associated musical styles going on forever, she says. “I’m from the South, so for me the dance that is known as twerking has been around for years, it just had different monikers. I’ve seen it go from booty pop, clapping, booty dropping, to this umbrella term of the twerk.”
Part of the spread of twerking, she says, comes from its steady spread in strip clubs throughout the country, then on to young gay culture.
“With the Internet, YouTube, Vine, Instagram video, all of that stuff has been perpetuating the idea of twerking, so now you have this [scene] that makes it more accessible to non-people-of-color.”
At Controversy, the main focus isn’t just on twerking, she clarifies. Her music runs from dancehall to R&B, Caribbean, reggaeton, and salsa. “We represent the music of people who are underrepresented in Boston.”
Still, the twerking contests are a blast, Afrika says. “We did not expect the response it got. It’s fun to watch, fun to be a part of, and there are really talented acrobatic people out there twerking. The beauty is it’s non-gender-specific, all you have to do is move your butt in time to the beat. No gender, no color, just pure athleticism.”
DJ ABD, a.k.a. Salim Akram from local R&B standouts Bad Rabbits, is happy to see twerking go mainstream, but appreciates it more as an opportunity to expose the music he likes to a broader audience. “It’s funny, a lot of people don’t know it came from New Orleans, particularly the gay community, sissy bounce, all that kind of stuff. It’s cool to be a part of Twerk Fest because we can kind of cater the style of music
I like — New Orleans style, Miami bootie bass, Baltimore club — in a setting on a Saturday night where people can come out and be receptive to it.”
“It’s the actual roots,” Akram says. “People authentically doing the dance to the music where it was originated from. It’s how they express themselves musically through dance. To see it firsthand is pretty dope.”
If it’s an old style of music it can be turned into an electronic hybrid. And if it’s an old theater standard, it can be updated with modern burlesque. That goes a small way toward explaining The Penny Jive, running tonight and Sunday at Club Oberon. “Part cabaret show, part penny dreadful theatrical, the night is
[everything from] house to circus, burlesque, belly dance, and a live ElectroSwing score,” explains producer and director Madelaine Ripley, of the immersive show based on “The Beggar’s Opera” and “The Threepenny Opera” with music from DJ and electronic producer Moduloktopus. Tickets available at www.cluboberon.com. . . . Octo Octa, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-by-way-of-New Hampshire producer whose atmospheric, contemplative house-riffing debut, “Between Two Selves,” we were singing the praises of here back in May, will perform at Social Studies at Good Life on Aug. 23. Residents Brenden Wesley and Alfredo support. (www.goodlifebar.com)
At: Club 1254, 1254 Boylston St., Boston. Aug. 24, 10 p.m.
21+. Cover $5. www.machine-boston.com
Luke O'Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.