When The Music Changes, So Does The Dance

As we all know, Miley Cyrus was the conduit that brought twerking to the mainstream consciousness. This is unsurprising.

A few months ago, Cyrus uploaded a YouTube video wearing a onesie and twerking to a song called “The Wop.” Frankly, Miley can’t move like the Twerk Team (who’ve accumulated millions of views on YouTube and a significant underground following).


According to some, Miley’s recent MTV VMA’s performance was a master class in how to become an unintentional comedy masterpiece. She “twerked” badly and stuck her tongue out. It was weird and awkward.

“Twerking” isn’t new. If people took the time to explore the root of what’s been dubbed as the “twerk,” they’d realise its origins lie in West Africa. The roots of twerking are rich. Variants of the dance exist in most places where there’s a high concentration of people of African descent.

Imagine bellydancing, but with a greater emphasis on hip and butt movements. There’s lots of popping of the butt and swiveling of the hips.Imagine bellydancing, but with a greater emphasis on hip and butt movements. There’s lots of popping of the butt and swiveling of the hips.

Its ubiquity may seem sudden, but mainstream media’s merely catching up to something that’s existed in black global culture for years.  It’s rhythmic and complex, the footwork’s intricate and even though the body is blending different rhythms, it all manages to flow like water. Sadly, twerking has been branded, and is now being fetishized and ghettoised.

The evolution of many of today’s rap music lyrics has resulted in the sexualization of a dance that has been long embraced by cultures outside of North America. Several different cultures have been “twerking” for years without being labeled as stripper-like and provocative. In cultures outside of North America, dances often similar, if not identical to the popular twerk, are something you do with your friends and family as a gesture of musical appreciation and unity. Such dances also often play a big role in a nation’s identity, and a primary reason why they are not viewed as sexual can be attributed to the nature of the lyrics that accompany the music.

Perhaps twerking doesn’t have the technical depth or chronicled history of ballet. It isn’t viewed as a dance scholarship worthy discipline like tap. However, it has an equally interesting history. And when done properly, it takes tremendous skill and attention.

So, there must be some good reason why humans like to dance.

Dancing played a vital role in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. All social classes were exposed to music and dancing. “The laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passers by.”

Throughout the ancient Mediterranean, in sculpture and painting, dancers are shown with their heads thrown back, or turned aside, away from the simple directional focus that characterizes other forms of movement. The dancer is not looking where she is going. What does it mean that dancers are so often portrayed stepping in one direction while their eyes are turned back, or to the side, but in any case, do not serve clearly to lead the body straight? It means that the dancer is not entirely in this world, or else, she is both here and elsewhere, her eyes drawn to the unseen landscape.

While she is completely in her body, hyperaware of her physical nature, at the same time the dancer is participating in an internal vision. Hearing other music or seeing other terrains, her head turns to that direction. The dancer’s vision, or her failure to rely on ordinary vision, reinforces her liminal power. What is the nature of the threshold she crosses? Perhaps, like the dancers from the 18th dynasty tomb of Keruef in Thebes, she participates in the journey of the dead from the mortal world to the place of eternal life.

Some gestures are particularly likely to contain spiritual meaning. The gesture of lifting the arms is a particularly spiritually powerful one. A terra-cotta figure of a goddess from prehistoric Egypt, now in the Brooklyn Museum, lifts her arms in an open circle above her head. Her gesture is all-inclusive, all-encompassing, a statement of eternal presence and comfort and blessing. It is hard for a dancer to look at this figure without feeling a responsive, imitative movement in her own body. The goddess’s very slightly off-center pose seems to imply a motion through time, space and meaning that is both fluid and eternal.

Other deities share this form of representation. A Cretan goddess of healing and comfort holds her hands upraised in a more approachable, less celestial version of the gesture. Figurines of the Cretan “snake goddess” hold in their outstretched hands the snakes that symbolize her elemental power.

In Egyptian art, the gesture of upraised arms is typical of the goddess who both protects and creates. In a painting from the tomb of Ramesses VI, Hathor holds a human in one hand, the sun disk in the other, showing her role in the creation and nurturance of both human and celestial worlds. The two positions, worshipper and deity, are cast in the same light, the same dynamic of generosity and respect. The lady Anhai is shown in her 20th dynasty Book of the Dead as having been judged worthy of eternal life. She carries the feathers of life in her hands, upraised in gratitude, both a triumph and a prayer.

This gesture occurs outside of the Mediterranean as well; it is virtually universal.

The trf was a dance performed by a pair of men during the Old Kingdom. Dance troupes were accessible to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women from wealthy harems were trained in music and dance. They danced for royalty accompanied by female musicians playing on guitars, lyres and harps. However, no well-bred Egyptian would dance in public, because that was the privilege of the lower classes.

It has been the habit of complex civilizations, both Eastern and Western, to divide the world into masculine and feminine oppositions: public and private, light and dark, reason and irrationality, action and receptivity. It has also been their practice to privilege the masculine and to hold the feminine qualities as necessary yet less desirable. Also, commonly, men are felt to have individual direction and ambition, while women are considered more important in their collective aspect as the wives and mothers that provide the background for the masculine drama.

The image of women as vessels has been used to undermine feminine creativity. Lesley-Anne Sayers comments on the tendency of dance criticism to speak differently of male and female roles: “[I]n art, women become and embody, men create.” The woman is the object the man paints or sculpts, the ballerina is the canvas on which the choreographer creates. But the concept of embodiment is not in itself a derogatory one. It all depends on your point of view.

If you understand the dancer as an emptiness to be filled with something not herself, of someone else’s choosing, then the image can turn exploitative. The dancer is an object in the viewer’s gaze. But if the dancer is the subject, the one who approaches the fountain from which she wishes to fill herself, the one who chooses what to bring her audience and in fact brings it to them — then this is a particularly feminine form of creative power.

In the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, religion emphasizes humble adherence to moral rules. Conventional religious thought tends to separate the body from the purer instincts of the soul. To a world that holds this view, and which is structured around hierarchies in which order, power and reason are primary, the gentle chaos of this dance can be terrifying. Here is a source of spiritual feeling that arises from the body, that is expressed through the body, that may even cause stirrings in the bodies of those who watch as they are drawn into the eternal movement.

Here is a way to approach the liminal territory of escape from the here and now, an escape both into oneself and beyond one’s time and place. Such liminal experience is one of the great offerings of religion. It is also one of the great offerings of sex. And this dance form is a blending of these instincts, the spiritual and carnal, in a motion that transcends time, speaks individually and universally, and fragments into insubstantial yet vital memory.

No wonder dancers are so often misunderstood, their art dishonored. The ability of the dancer to speak so intently and so physically of these depths is a frightening thing.

Bellydancing is the last vestige of goddess worship in the Middle East and is in danger of becoming extinct. Bellydancing began as ritual for childbirth preparation in the ancient Middle East. Before Islam and Christianity, when the Mother Goddess was worshipped, sex and childbearing were sacred. During this time, many societies were matriarchal, and bellydancing was performed by women for women.

Today many Middle Eastern countries forbid women to perform the dance. During the 1950’s, bellydancing was declared illegal in Egypt. After a popular uprising ensued, the government repealed the ban with one condition — that dancers no longer show their stomachs. (That law still remains in effect.)

Why is bellydancing being stopped? Dallal, a professional Mideastern dancer, thinks, “The anti-bellydancing sentiment and reactionary religious extremism was because dancers had such charisma and strength that the audience was compelled to silence by the lift of a dancer’s arm driven to frenzy by a dancer’s union with the drumbeats.

“Perhaps the Arab men are afraid of the tremendous power in the hands of women when they perform this dance.”

Music was one of the favourite cultural traditions of the Arabs in the days of the Prophet Muhammad (sws). Music and musical instruments were frequently used in worship rituals. It was also employed in the expression of delight and sorrow. Music accompanied wars and festivals too.

A study of the traditions ascribed to the Holy Prophet (sws) reveals that not only did he express his likeness for Music but he also encouraged others to play it on festive occasions. Some reliable narratives in this regard make it clear that the mother of the believers, ‘A’ishah (rta) listened to songs in the very presence of the Holy Prophet (sws).

The Holy Prophet (sws) himself is reported to have encouraged people to use music on wedding ceremonies. On his migration from Makkah to Madinah, the women sang welcome songs on the Daff and the Holy Prophet (sws) expressed his approbation of this. At another occasion, a professional female singer and musician approached him and requested him to listen to her song.

Islam is a religion of moderation and does not approve of either extremism or negligence. It does not prevent people from having entertainment; however, it provides the rules that regulate this entertainment. At the same time, Islam does not tolerate any kind of entertainment that contains haram (unlawful) or even leads to haram behavior.

Dancing can be either between women, between men, or mixed between both sexes. It is allowed for women to dance together unless it involves revealing any of the woman’s `awrah – that is, the parts of the body between the navel and the knee – in front of other women. It is also allowed unless the dancing means that mandatory obligations will not be carried out or if it coincides with unlawful acts.

In this regard, Dr. Su’ad Salih, professor of Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) at Al-Azhar University , states:

Islam is a religion of moderation; it does not prevent singing and dancing, but it forbids anything that stimulates people’s desires, whether it be among men or women. Women are supposed to observe good manners if they dance in front of other women. They should not exceed the limits by doing anything that stimulates desires and incites evil. There are many cases where women are tempted by other women.

However, if a woman dances in front of her husband, then there is no restriction, as it is a way of cementing relations between spouses – and this a key pillar of establishing the Muslim family.

Dance is perhaps the most prevalent art form across all cultures. When accompanied by music, it is most commonly associated with festivities and the human mating ritual. From the ancient belly dancers of Babylon, to the strippers of modern-day Las Vegas, the rhythmic gyration of a female body is one of the most common demonstrations of sexuality in society.

In this context of courtship through poetry in motion, anthropologists will surely add to the pantheon the act of “twerking,” the upside-down, spread-eagle, butt-jiggling dance move that has permeated YouTube, Instagram, and the internet in general.

Despite the symbolic subjugation that is overtly perceivable in their movement, dancers of the twerk, or, as they are called, the Twerk Team, assume a semblance of power in post-feministic self-objectification. They’re “taking it back,” so to speak.  Rather than a display of sexual availability, twerking is more often likened to a display of physical flexibility and power, intended for an audience of impressed people of both genders.

Booty dances exist in various forms throughout the African Diaspora, and in Africa, and dance in general has long been a medium through which people of African descent worship, express creativity, communicate, pay homage to ancestors and spirits among other functions. Yet booty-dancing as an art form continues to be derided maligned and dismissed as inconsequential or obscene, and the black women doing the dances are objectified, seen as hyper-sexualised and disgusting.

In times past, we might have swung our hips from side to side in time with the rhythm to celebrate fertility or female sexual energy or in the worship of certain deities. Today, the many forms of booty dances retain some similarities, yet each is unique, and they continue to develop and gain popularity under different circumstances.

Dance is the art of the body. As newborn babies, we experience and express everything through the body. We do not differentiate between our senses and how we respond to them. Feeling cold or hungry, we cry. Our first movements are instinctual explorations. As babies, we are literally not sure of the difference between ourselves and the world. Where is the end of me and the beginning of my mother?

As we leave infancy, we learn two things that are particularly relevant to how we later dance. One is language. We learn to say exactly what we want, to ask for “juice” or “a story.” But when we gain this ability to be precise, we obscure the fact that our needs are really not precise. We may want a complex form of comfort, but only be able to ask for “juice.” Language gets you some things but loses you others.

Dance allows us to return to the more evocative and exploratory, but far less specific, language of the body, to express ideas too complex to be spoken in words.

The other thing we learn is body language, the communicative subtexture of our world.

We absorb nuances of stance and gesture. We learn what gestures and attitudes are praised, and which ones elicit disapproval. When, as children, we learn these physical textures, before we even learn to dance, we have left our primal state and entered history. We are, for life, members of the culture we grow up in. When we dance, we dance the dances of our people.

Bodily movement is an adaptive necessity as well as a human birthright. As humans, we move for many reasons. We move for pleasure, communal bonding, ritual, and self-expression. When movement becomes consciously structured and is performed with awareness for its own sake, it becomes dance.

All cultures have their own body languages, their own physical web of meaning. They also have their own ways of making dances. The act of dancing is defined differently by different peoples, and is of course valued differently, and put to different uses. But there are some universals in the human practice of dance, and one of them is time.

Dance ethnologist Joann Kealiinohomoku begins her definition of dance, “Dance is a transient mode of expression, performed in a given form and style by the human body moving in space.” The transience she begins with is vitally important to the historical, cultural and spiritual meanings of Middle Eastern dance. Dance happens in the field of time. It occurs in the present, and then it exists only in memory. A physical piece of art, or a written work, is there to be seen or read or touched again and again, to reveal new facets of itself. But dance vanishes from the material world.

Any new facets of a dance performance can be uncovered only in our own unreliable memories. And although we are now, after millennia of dancing, able to capture performance on film, we preserve only the visual aspects of dances. All of us are painfully aware of how little of the experience of the dance a video conveys. The real dance is fragmented into as many different memories as people who shared it.

Dance is intrinsic to most women as a form of expression, although many women have become disconnected from this. Dance is meditative, healing, and empowering. It bridges the sexual/spiritual gap that most women have lost, touching all levels of existence: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Sacred dance, tapping into inherent, primordial movements, is as ancient as creation itself. It can help women reconnect to the creative and sacred parts of themselves.

From the beginning of time, sacred movement, song and story have brought people together – at times of seasonal ceremony and celebration, as part of everyday life and life passages, in daily renewal and meditation. The Dances of Universal Peace are part of this timeless tradition of Sacred Dance.

The intrinsic value of dance is not separate from its instrumental benefits. The byproducts of learning dance include the instrumental benefits of physical health, emotional maturation, social awareness, cognitive development, and academic achievement.

Dance is helpful for children’s development of a strong sense of self as an emotional and social being. Preschoolers developed language, movement, and collaborative skills to express their ideas in a school dance program. Children created and named their own poses, learned ways of breathing to apply in different emotional situations, mirrored others’ movement, incorporated different emotions into their movement, and participated in free movement. Children became receptive to each other, which helped to develop their social cognition and raised their self-awareness of their bodies in that space and time.

Clinical applications are a long way off, but dance research is giving scientists insight into the purpose of this human phenomenon. After all, people around the world and throughout history have elaborated greatly on that ancient impulse to move to a beat. But while the whole-body convulsions of African folk dancers seem so different from the stiff posture of Irish dancers, these and many other cultures often use dance within their courtship and mating rituals, says William Michael Brown, PhD, a psychologist and dance researcher at Queen Mary University of London and the University of East London.

This Western construction of dance as inherently sexy and meaningless, arose in part because dance happens and vanishes in the field of time.

We are shaped by our culture. Our body language, our understanding of gesture, and our physical relationship to the world are formed by the culture we grow up in. Our definition of sexuality, gender roles, and what happens between dancer and audience, are shaped by our culture.

In today’s dance world, where we are open to so many powerful images of dance from so many different sources, these different possibilities of nuance in traditional movement have a deep impact on both our deliberate and our instinctual interpretations of the dance.

Dance uses our most primitive and most nuanced vocabulary, the gestures of the body. Dance speaks truths too important to be defined in words, too pleasurable to be spoken except through the body.

Americans dancing for American audiences may seek to express the same eternal truths as an Egyptian dancer performing for her compatriots. But audience, body language, the whole culture, are different, and so the form of the dance is different.

We dance our history. We dance in the bodies that were shaped by our culture. We dance as the individuals we are.

If you want to twerk, do it. It’s fun. But be aware of your motivations for doing so.

Live and Learn. We All Do.

Thanks for reading. Please share 🙂

Please don’t forget to leave a comment.

About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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