Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Stripper's Report Card: Twerks Well With Others

New Orleans is apparently the home of twerking, so it is no surprise that it remains a place where twerking can occur without a moment’s notice. Last night as my lady Debra and I toured through Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, a terrific brass band was playing on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres. The pandemonium was near absolute as a passel of three college-age white girls made their ways to the front of the crowd and began dancing. It was the classic Neapolitan ice cream mix of a blond, a brunette and a redhead; Debra cast a glance at the ladies and of their high-riding blue jean cut-offs she said, “Those look like twerking shorts.” Not sixty seconds later, one of the gals assumed the position and the floorshow began.

Like a baboon in mating season she thrust her butt cheeks high, and with a Marilyn Monroe storm-grate-and-white-dress leg splay along with a tongue-lolling look over one shoulder, she issued gluteal gyrations that if harnessed could potentially mitigate the current energy crisis. The other two were soon to follow. Then came the fanny-slapping, there having been some division of labor pertaining to expertise, as the twerker was highly skilled, as was the slapper, part of whose responsibilities were lip curling and more tongue lolling, caricatures of a woman in the throes of sexual abandon.

But where does the word come from? As I mentioned previously, it seems to have originated in New Orleans. According to research by Katherine Connor Martin, head of US dictionaries at Oxford University Press, it bubbled up from the bounce music scene in New Orleans in the 1990s. Martin cites a first recorded instance in 1993 on a dance record by DJ Jubilee called Jubilee All in which he utters the line, “Shake baby, shake baby, shake, shake, shake… Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk.” Shakespeare it ain’t, but DJ Jubilee’s cultural influence has grown, its most widely observed demonstration having been Miley Cyrus’s notorious performance at the 2013 VMA awards.

It is theorized to be a derivative of “work,” as in “work it,” an exhortation to ramp up dancing suggestiveness that has been a known usage going back to the disco era and perhaps before. It may also be a conflation of “twitch” and “work,” for obvious reasons. One of the women who joined Debra and me on our stroll through Frenchman Street said, “If I ever saw my daughter doing that there would be hell to pay.”

A similar reaction greeted Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” when it became popular in the late 1950s, and that ire has since subsided entirely. Somehow I doubt twerking will ever enjoy the same social acceptance, but who knows? Perhaps some number of years from now, grandmothers will be gathering on the nursing home porch and leaning on walkers for support, twerking and flashing decades-old tramp stamps and remarking as to which among them can still bring the thunder.