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The Dance Teacher Reclaiming Twerking

When you hear the word "twerk", chances are that, whatever your opinion, you think of Miley Cyrus or Lily Allen. Stomping into the mainstream over the last couple of years, twerking has fuelled a tsunami of think pieces, Twitter wars and panel discussions. Is twerking objectifying or empowering. Does twerking cater to the male gaze or does it aggressively assert female sexuality?

These are valid questions, but they’re somewhat missing the point. Surely the first issue we should raise is why such a particular style of dance that descended from Africa via New Orleans is being popularised and redefined by white women?

Personal trainer Kelechi Okafor is tired of the often blinkered, whitewashed feminist response to twerking. She runs twerking classes as a means of empowering women, and recently led a twerkshop as part of a series of events with The School of Oriental and African Studies BME Network (listen to her on a brilliant panel discussing twerking as an “act of resistance” here).

For Kelechi, radicalising twerking facilitates active change in how black women are both perceived and treated by the mainstream. Refinery29 caught up with her to find out more.

How and why were you drawn to twerk?
As long as I remember I’ve always danced in the same way, "twerk" is just a word that’s been applied to it fairly recently. I think of it in terms of what I know of West African dance; like African dance twerk is very much driven by a drumbeat and the drumbeat is usually there to simulate a heartbeat. It’s very raw, it’s very connected and it’s very grounded within a sense of self. It’s is also very self-driven, which is why I thought to use it to help empower women.

What are some of the empowering aspects of twerk?
It’s really physical, you sweat and sometimes you can feel a bit broken. There’s a sense of catharsis because there’s a letting go. We’re operating under a patriarchy so a lot of women are hyper-functional, they’re not really living, they’re just surviving and in order to survive you have to disconnect from yourself.

Twerk demands that you connect with yourself for it to work, and in finding that connection you discover more and become more at ease with yourself, knowing you have a kind of release. A lot of women in my class are much happier having found a safe space where they’re allowed to do that.

How important is the aspect of safety to your practice?
In order to learn we have to feel safe, otherwise we’re not receptive to whatever information we’re receiving and we’re not open to try or to change. I use twerk to offer a safe space which is necessary for mental health, otherwise you’re always anxious – you’re hyper vigilant, you’re not relaxing.

What’s the relationship between twerking and feminism?
To be radical with something means taking what it is and making it work for you, that’s what me and other women who teach twerk are doing; trying to radicalise it. A lot of people get pre-occupied with the lyrics of songs which can be problematic, but the beat itself is what I feel is attractive. As far as other feminists refuting it, there are white feminists who refute the idea that intersectional feminism is a thing – something that’s a reality, they deny. I can’t expect them to even try to grasp what’s happening with twerking because I know that what will be said is that it’s for the mainstream male gaze and that it’s hyper-sexualised.

Why is the way twerking is represented in the mainstream so dangerous?
It’s the same with twerk as with any form of African culture in terms of blackness being consumed. For decades you’re told that this particular thing makes you savage and sub-human and suddenly when it comes to whiteness adopting and consuming it that same thing becomes worthy, but only for monetary gain of the white power structure that’s using it. That infuriates me.

There’s a long-standing abusive cycle where black people are told "you’re worthless" but at the same time the things produced by black people are whitewashed and used in the mainstream. There have to be people like myself and other women of colour trying to take up space after having been told for centuries not to. We need to be visible so it’s still linked to us in some way, even though when it’s linked to us it’s seen as low art.

What are some of the ways you can do that?
Social media has allowed for intersectional feminism to have a stronghold of sorts and it’s now allowing them to mobilise. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter would not have been possible without queer and black support; intersectional feminists got together and utilised social media to make that happen. Equally, without social media things like my twerk class wouldn’t be out there. In order for the change I’m trying to affect to be possible, it needs to be seen – I’m trying to normalise it, so you can see a black woman dancing in a particular way and not assume that it’s there for you to consume.

Finally, can you talk us through your last twerkshop?
The twerkshop was a really amazing experience. We started by discussing perceptions and pre-conceptions of twerk and the men spoke and the women spoke and we fed off each other. Then we tried a move to an afro-beats song, I asked the group what we’d just done and they said "African dance". I asked who takes part in African dance and they said "everybody – men do it and women do it" and from that point on onwards men no longer saw it as “twerk” they saw it as a foot movement or a back movement. Literally from just changing the song the perception is changed. That was powerful for me, it was powerful to be in a room exchanging energies and information with these people – it was truly amazing.

Follow Kelechi on Twitter @kelechnekoff and Instagram: @kelechnekoff