On Twerking and Writing

“Dancing is very like poetry,” Martha Graham said. Although she has been one of my idols since I happened to stumble upon her biography in my elementary school library decades ago, I only began to understand the connection between the art of the pen and the art of the body recently. Growing up, I idolized not Michael Jackson as so many of my classmates did, but Graham and Josephine Baker. I dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but back in those days, when children’s hobbies were regarded as luxuries reserved for those who could comfortably afford them, rather than basic entitlements of middle-class childhood, lessons that had to be paid for were out of the question for me and my three sisters. I consoled myself by memorizing as many ballet positions as I could from library books. I did not know then that I had an unusual native talent for dance; I simply loved it for its beauty.

I have never received professional dance training in any real and sustained way, but I am one of the best untrained dancers you are likely to ever meet. I know how jarring it is to read that unqualified compliment which I just gave myself, so let me provide a bit of cultural context. I come from a community in which false modesty is neither encouraged nor tolerated. As anyone who has ever heard a black comic perform or who has listened to a rap song knows, we don’t do humble bragging. When you are the bomb, you simply say so.

As anyone who has ever heard a black comic perform or listened to a rap song knows, we don’t do humble-bragging. When you are the bomb, you simply say so.

Self-confidence, even overweening, is considered an integral part of a woman’s femininity and appeal. At the majority-black suburban school I attended outside Atlanta, the most popular girls were not necessarily the prettiest. A few were smart, others athletic, most trendily dressed and with an enviable sense of style, and some gifted with permissive single parents or their own cars. I used to wonder why the boys, fine or not, went gaga for these, to me, often ordinary-looking girls, until I realized the one element that they all had in spades (pun intended, yes, like that iN-famous word, I, as a member of the disadvantaged group, get to make this politically incorrect pun): balls of brass. These girls oozed the confidence of titans of industry. No shy batting of eyelashes or looking like they didn’t know their own tremendous worth.

I was, of course, nowhere near the ranks of the popular as a confirmed nerd with a group of equally nerdy friends. Outside the classroom, I was all insecurity and false superiority of the kind that attracts bullies who sense, even that soon, that they are in their halcyon days. I knew that I couldn’t compete with other girls in fashion sense or attractiveness—as was de rigueur at a black school—but I would rush into the restroom during the six-minute breaks granted us between classes to modify some aspect of my attire. I’d add a plastic bangle, apply another coat of the bright red Wet n’ Wild lipstick I smuggled out of the house unknown to my strict parents, or shift my Doris Day bangs from left to right. Much as I would love to attribute this sartorial dilettantism to a manifestation of the artist’s urge to constantly reinvent her identity, it was merely the desperate grasping of a pimply unibrowed teenager for infuriatingly elusive acceptance from peers. Only within the safe confines of the classroom did I unleash the tiger within, never not taking the lead in discussions or letting myself be outtalked by anyone in any debate. I spoke to teachers respectfully but in an almost collegial way. This sense of our equality, which I cavalierly manifested in tone, infuriated a few of my black teachers, but interestingly, none of the white ones, among whom I numbered some of my closest mentors and friends.

As a college student at Howard University in Washington, DC—a city which still has, despite its reputation for stodginess, a surprisingly vibrant amateur dance scene due to the large proportion of international residents—I finally gained exposure to the rudiments of several ballroom dance styles, mostly Latin. On weekends, I would walk from my dorm down to DuPont Circle to take informal group lessons that were given in clubs and bars for free, or for which I paid a nominal fee, never more, I remember, than five dollars. Mambo, bachata, merengue, swing, waltz, cha cha: I tried each of these at least once.

It was during this period that I actually realized that I had a gift for rhythm. As the aunt of a man from Peru whom I befriended said after watching me dance: “Llevas el ritmo en la sangre.” You carry the rhythm in your blood. People—and not just men who were potentially interested in dating—complimented me; sometimes a circle formed and people applauded as I danced with a partner. I was asked to join a dance troupe. But I had always identified myself as a writer. I might be good at dancing, but dreams of any career in professional dance were long behind me; I did it strictly for fun. I could easily pick up the flow of a particular sequence of steps, reproduce it gracefully, and incorporate them into my eclectic repertoire.

And yet one style in particular proved to be my Rubicon. I could approach but never come close to being able to perform the dance ubiquitous in hip hop videos. The one that was born in Louisiana and thrust—literally—into the public eye several years ago, after Miley Cyrus performed it, to widespread condemnation from whites (for its vulgarity) and blacks (for the unaesthetic flatness of her posterior), at the Grammy Awards. I am referring, of course, to twerking.

No matter how assiduously I studied music videos or watched my nieces twerk, I just could not get the rhythm right. My twerking problem was strangely reminiscent of my writing problem. Just as many of my carefully crafted stories into which I seemed to have diligently put all the necessary ingredients—feeling for the characters, interesting plots, authentic-sounding dialogue, proper pacing—fell flat, so did my twerking.

As with writing the stories, I could do the technical part very well. The first part of the twerk presented no problem. I could shake my hips to bring waist and gluteus inward like a curling fetus and out again in time to the hard bassline beat. But after that, it all fell apart. No matter how hard I tried to keep my “back spears” moving repeatedly in time to the music, they would run away, like the brawling schoolboys to which a wag once compared the derriere of Elizabeth Taylor in her later years. I could not, for the life of me, keep them working together on the beat. But striver that I am, I would try, try, and try again until my execution became too embarrassingly sloppy to sustain. Then I would sigh inwardly like an amateur maker of robots confronting a design problem that has defeated him many times and is defeating him once again. I would switch back to one of the classically influenced moves that I could do, as Rick Ross said of shooting a chopper, with my eyes closed.

All of this changed recently. Several weeks ago, I wrote a poem about twerking in Dutch and English—“Toen zeiden de mensen—We want Hannah Montana back/Not Miley Cyrus, acting black”—that may or may not have been any good but felt good to write. The next time I began to twerk with my customary ineptitude, I began to work on that poem in my mind. I wanted only to revise and tighten the language. Suddenly, as I repeated the words to myself, I laughed and leaned into the music. I did not, by some strange instinct, try to control the first and second movement of my gluteal muscles. I curved inward and then let myself go, really go, until I felt the waves of flesh samsara into a ripple of their own making.

Suddenly it was clear to me that the thing I had been doing wrong along was overdoing everything, as I have so often done in stories but rarely in poems. In twerking, I realized, that this isolated part of the body has to become like the cloth of a matador’s handkerchief, which is propelled entirely action spiraling outward from the wrist and forearm. I understood that I had been trying to do the equivalent of moving the cloth itself. My efforts to exercise complete control of the range of gluteal motion were exactly what ruined the move.

All that is required to twerk well is to set up the perfect form and let the gravity of the oleaginous tissue do the rest. It is no coincidence that in a number of Miami bass songs, dancers are repeatedly admonished to “ride the beat” because surrender is essential. Letting go is exactly what I have lacked for so long—the confidence to be able to do in fiction and elsewhere.

Legs spread wide, I stretched out my arms and planted my hands on the floor like the girls in the video for Drake’s “In My Feelings.” I held the pose far longer than I had thought possible. I looked at my ass shadowed on the white bedroom wall and exulted to see that I was moving in perfect time to the music.

I received the supreme confirmation that my technique was finally flawless in a fashion I did not expect. The faces of my three daughters, who have seen me dance and try to twerk countless times, were blanched with horror as they never had been during previous attempts. They rushed out of my presence visibly discomfited. Several moments later, my youngest daughter, who is eight years old, returned with a note signed by all, begging me to “never twerk in your hole [sic] life again.” I let the peals of my laughter fill the room and continued my victory dance.

Rois M. Beal grew up in Georgia but has spent most of the last two decades in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, working in embassies and as a language teacher. She attended the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) summer fiction workshop, and her work has appeared in the Washington Post and African Voices. She lives in Belgium with her husband and three daughters and every imaginable kind of chocolate.