Twerking is a type of dancing in which an individual, often female, moves to music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low squatting stance. Twerking is also known as “booty shaking,” “p-poppin” or “pussy-poppin“, and “bounce” depending on the context.
The term seems to be of uncertain origin with common assumptions suggesting it represents a contraction of “footwork” or a portmanteau of the words “twist” and “jerk”. The Oxford Dictionaries blog says “the most likely theory is that it is an alteration of work, because that word has a history of being used in similar ways, with dancers being encouraged to “work it”. There is evidence from ethnographic interviews in New Orleans that the term began as everyday street language in New Orleans concurrent with the rise of the local style of hip hop music known as bounce.
The earliest use of the word “twerk” on record was produced in a local New Orleans recording by DJ Jubilee. The word specifically originated from the inner-city of New Orleans and was used frequently in New Orleans Bounce music by rappers and djs hosting block parties in the housing projects. The word became popular In the 2000s when it was used by Atlanta rapper lil Jon and The Eastside boys.  A Google Trends search reveals that interest in the word “twerk” arose in November 2011. The diffusion of the dance phenomenon began earlier via local parties and eventually strip clubs often associated with mainstream rap music and video production aired by video cable television shows that featured rap and R&B music. Popular video-sharing channels amplified interest since the advent of digital social media platforms.
In 2013, the dance became a viral sensation beyond black culture. Miley Cyrus appropriated the dance in a video that was uploaded first to Facebook and then YouTube in March. Though twerking began trending as a web search in November 2011, and despite its origins in the bounce culture of New Orleans in the late 1980s, the word twerk would be added to the Oxford Dictionary Online and attributed to Cyrus following her appearance at the MTV VMA Awards in August 2013. It became the number one “What is” Google search that year as those outside the culture questioned the popularity of the booty-popping dance that showed up across social media feeds worldwide. The word was a runner-up to “selfie” in the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013.
The term and dance has become the subject of discourse about cultural appropriation, white superiority and privilege, and misogynoir in the video cultures of new media especially concerning the exploitation of black and female cultural forms and practices. Parallel discussions can be found in earlier discourse about crossover between dominant and marginalized artists in the music industry.
Links to Africa and its diaspora
Historically and currently, similar styles of booty-shaking are found throughout the continent of Africa as well as the African and Afro-Latin diaspora. Similar styles of dance are known as mapouka Côte d’Ivoire, leumbeul in Senegal, and other styles can be found in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya to name a few. This style of pelvic- and hip-isolated dancing is known as perreo or sandungueo associated with Reggaeton from the Dominican Republic. Twerking can be said to be indirectly linked to African cultural dancing without any direct connections between people from Africa. Without knowledge of its historical or cultural roots in New Orleans and links to a diaspora of styles of dance, the trend was discussed in ahistorical ways. The history of its origins in New Orleans in the early 1990s is documented in various sources. Twerking like many cultural traditions or expressive dances associated with marginalized groups has become stigmatized in racialized and gendered ways that often associates those who perform the dance—primarily girls and women of color—with deviant behavior.
The word “twerking” first appeared on record in “Do the Jubilee All” by DJ Jubilee in 1993, in which he chanted, “Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk.” In 1995, New Orleans-based rapper Cheeky Blakk recorded the song “Twerk Something!”, a call-and-response dance song dedicated to twerking. In 1997, DJ Jubilee recorded “Get Ready, Ready” in which he encouraged listeners to “Twerk it!”.
Twerking first received national recognition in the United States in the early 2000s, when the song “Whistle While You Twurk” (2000), by Southern hip hop duo Ying Yang Twins, peaked at number 17 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs component chart. It was later referenced in their later track “Say I Yi Yi” (2002), in which the lyrics “she got her hands up on her knees and her elbows on her thighs / she like to twerk and that’s for certain I can tell that she fly” are heard. In her 2005 single “Check on It”, American recording artist Beyoncé sings “Dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it, check on me tonight.” Beyoncé’s single reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, following its release. “Twerk” was also sung in Destiny’s Child’s pop hit “Jumpin’ Jumpin’.”
In 2006, the song “Pop, Lock & Drop It”, by American rapper Huey, reached number six on the US Billboard Hot 100. Also in 2006, the hit single “SexyBack”, by American pop singer Justin Timberlake, featuring Timbaland, from the former’s second studio album Futuresex/Lovesounds, featured Timbaland rapping the lyrics “Let me see what you’re twerking with / Go ahead, be gone with it, Look at those hips”. During her tenure in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Eve Torres would twerk before performing a standing moonsault on her opponent.
In 2011, a group of female dancers who call themselves the Twerk Team and have posted several videos of themselves twerking on YouTube were mentioned during the song “Round of Applause” by Waka Flocka Flame featuring Drake, in the line “Bounce that ass, shake that ass like the Twerk Team”. Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has incorporated twerking into her live shows since 2011.
In July 2012, during the Workaholics episode “The Lord’s Force”, Anders Holm says “Let’s just, uh, put on some twerk videos or something, right?”. The 2012 single “Bandz a Make Her Dance” by Juicy J, contains the lyric “Start twerking when she hear her song”, while French Montana questions the ability of a girl to twerk by asking “What you twerkin’ with,” in his respective 2012 single “Pop That”, featuring fellow rappers Drake, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. The aforementioned songs, along with “Express Yourself” by Nicky Da B and Diplo, “made twerking the most popular dance move since the Dougie”.
In March 2013, American pop singer Miley Cyrus posted a video on Facebook which featured her performing a twerking routine while wearing a unicorn suit, to the 2011 single “Wop” by J. Dash. The popularity of the video, along with parodies and responses made by fans, influenced the song’s re-emergence on the Billboard Hot 100. Miley Cyrus’s “Wop” video would go to become viral; by April 9, 2013, copies of the video had amassed over 4 million views on YouTube. Also in March 2013, Mollie King, an English singer-songwriter and lead vocalist of British-Irish girl group The Saturdays, was seen twerking when her bandmate Rochelle Humes uploaded the footage on YouTube. American actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens was also seen twerking in March on American late-night talk show The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. In September 2013, Hudgens was later seen twerking, this time to the song “Bubble Butt”, during her performance at Bootsy Bellows in West Hollywood, with her girl group YLA. Hudgens was again seen twerking in a video for Shade 45’s radio show Sway in the Morning. American actress and singer Ashley Tisdale can also be seen twerking in a video for Shade 45’s radio show Sway in the Morning.
On July 9, 2013, a video was posted on the Twitter-owned video sharing service Vine entitled “Twerk Team”, which featured a group of five women provocatively twerking to “Don’t Drop That Thun Thun”. The clip was shared by users over 100,000 times, and users created their own responses and parodies featuring the song, collected under the hashtags “#dontdropthat” and “#thunthun”. The viral popularity of the Vine clips led to an unexpected increase in sales for the song; prior to the posting of the “Twerk Team” clip, only 4,000 copies of the song had been sold; in the following weeks, sales went up to 34,000, then to over 72,000. By late-July, “Don’t Drop That Thun Thun” had reached #5 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs chart, and it eventually peaked at #35 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Both “Wop” and “Don’t Drop That Thun Thun” have been cited as examples of how viral and user-created videos can bring renewed interest to songs; Spin writer Jordan Sargent considered “Wop” to be rap music’s “Harlem Shake moment”, but not a meme to the same extent as it. In April 2013, American rapper Danny Brown released the song “Express Yourself”, inspired by music producer Diplo’s song of the same name. The song, produced by Trampy, features a fast-paced electronic beat and is a composition about the popular dance craze twerking. Brown dedicated the song “to all the ladies that like to turn up and have fun,” in which he raps “Toes on the wall and her ass in the air / And she twerk that thing like she ain’t have a care”.
In the music video for Barbadian singer Rihanna’s single “Pour It Up”, which was released in May 2013, the singer can be seen twerking. In June 2013, American rapper Busta Rhymes released a Jamaican dancehall-inspired single titled “Twerk It”, featuring Nicki Minaj, who has been featured on several other “twerking songs”, including “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy” by Robin Thicke, “Dance (A$$)” by Big Sean and “Clappers” by Wale. Minaj can be seen twerking in all four of the aforementioned songs’ respective music videos. Minaj can also be seen twerking in the music videos for American rapper Nelly’s single “Get Like Me” and American singer Ciara’s single “I’m Out”. In August 2013, the song “Twerk”, by Lil Twist, featuring pop singers Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, was leaked online.
In August 2013, Juicy J announced via Twitter, that he would give out a $50,000 scholarship for the girl who can twerk the best. The competition is inspired by the track “Scholarship” on his third album Stay Trippy, which contains the lyric “Keep twerking baby, might earn you a scholarship.” In early September 2013, a video titled “Worst Twerk Fail EVER – Girl Catches Fire!”, began circulating around online; the video went on to become viral with over 9 million views, and received media coverage. The following week, American comedian and television host Jimmy Kimmel revealed the video was a hoax that he and his team had devised, on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. In April 2014, the video won the Webby Award for best viral clip of the year.
Also in September, “Twerk” from the MTV VMA show was named the Top Television Word of the Year (Teleword) of the 2012–2013 TV season by the Global Language Monitor. In October 2013, American actress Beth Behrs, of American television sitcom 2 Broke Girls, was seen twerking on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Behrs was later seen twerking to the 1992 hit “Baby Got Back”, in January 2014, during the 40th annual awards ceremony of the People’s Choice Awards, which she hosted alongside her co-star Kat Dennings. The fifth episode of the fifth season of the American musical television series Glee, which aired November 13, 2013 and was titled “The End of Twerk”, revolved around the twerking phenomenon. The seventh episode of the second season of the American reality television series Bad Girls All-Star Battle, which aired February 25, 2014 and was titled “Twerk It Out”, featured the contestants twerking as fast as possible with pedometers on their back.
In August 2013, American recording artist Miley Cyrus, generated controversy following a sexually provocative performance during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, in which Cyrus twerked during a medley of her track “We Can’t Stop”, “Blurred Lines” and “Give It 2 U” by Robin Thicke.
In August 2014, American recording artist Taylor Swift, featured twerking in the music video to her single “Shake It Off”. This caused some controversy with American rapper Earl Sweatshirt saying that the video was “perpetuating stereotypes”.
In 2005, a trio of teenage girls founded the “Twerk Team”, and joined YouTube on June 5, 2009. The team is now composed of two African American sisters from Atlanta, Georgia. Since the foundation of the team, they have been posting videos of “them gyrating and shaking their butts, to a point that it’s artistic.” It was called “YouTube’s foremost ass-shaking troupe” by gossip website Gawker. As of December 2012 their channel had a total of more than 74 million views and more than 250,000 subscribers. Their Twitter account has about 115,000 followers.