Dani Garavelli: Twerk joins long line of dance crazes

Miley Cyrus' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards featured twerking. Picture: PA
Miley Cyrus' performance at the MTV Video Music Awards featured twerking. Picture: PA
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When Miley Cyrus tried to shock us with the salacious Twerk she joined a venerable tradition of outrageous dancefloor crazes, writes Dani Garavelli

IT TOOK one white woman with a pert behind and a tongue that seems physically incapable of staying in her mouth to turn the “Twerk”, a sexually provocative dance move hitherto known only to aficionados of the hip hop culture, into an “overnight” sensation.

Ever since former Disney Channel star Miley Cyrus took to the stage at the MTV Music Video Awards with a bunch of teddy bears and a foam finger, the world has gone buttocks-jiggling mad. Although twerking has been a big thing among rap artists since the 1990s, the word’s initiation into the Oxford English Dictionary last week is proof it has crossed the Rubicon from the margins to the mainstream.

Though many dances are risqué, the Twerk has caused more controversy than most; partly because Blurred Lines, the hit to which Cyrus shook her booty, contains the phrase “I know you want it” and is seen by some as promoting date rape; and partly because her hijacking of a dance move which originated in black rap has been viewed by some as the worst kind of cultural appropriation.

But in every other sense, the Twerk is following a long tradition in which particular dances, sometimes subversive, sometimes cheesy, suddenly capture the public imagination, and it seems everyone from teenagers to teachers to grannies want a piece of the action.

As far as one can ascertain, no theses have been written on what makes the perfect dance craze, but they seem to fall into three broad categories; either they are pre-existing dances which take the music world by storm when they are teamed with a hit song (think of the rowing boat dance done to Oops Upside Your head by the Gap Band); or they are invented to accompany a particular song (The Birdie Song, Agadoo or Cotton-Eyed Joe); or they are the song’s raison d’être (the Locomotion or Mashed Potato Time). On occasion, the words of the song are actually instructions for the dance (think The Time Warp or DJ Casper’s contemporary line dance the Cha Cha Slide).

But what they have in common is that – after some preliminary tut-tutting – they encourage large numbers of people to come together in a state of harmless physical abandonment, particularly now the internet allows us to view the original music videos on YouTube, learn the moves via ad hoc tutorials by self-appointed experts, and share personal interpretations filmed in our own bedrooms.

Despite qualms over some aspects of Cyrus’s twerking the benefits of dance crazes are obvious. For a start, physical exercise of any kind is good for your health; last week, experts suggested vigorous twerking could burn up between five and eight calories a minute. But it’s also good for society. One look at the police officers performing an impromptu rowing boat dance at the Notting Hill Carnival last week shows how they can break down cultural barriers and encourage bonding. With this in mind, we look at 10 dance crazes which sent the world into a foot-tapping/hip-thrusting/arm-swinging frenzy.

The Jitterbug

As with the Twerk, the popularisation of the Jitterbug – so-called because those dancing it looked like alcoholics with the “jitters” – brought accusations of cultural appropriation. Initially called the Lindy Hop, it began life in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s, involved fast footwork, turns and aerial flips and was performed to jazz music. The Savoy had a predominantly black clientele, but was integrated, allowing the dance – by now called the jitterbug – to filter into mainstream culture. However, according to commentators at the time, white dancers more used to the stiff formality of waltzes, found the sheer physicality of the jitterbug difficult to master. “The hardest thing to learn is the pelvic motion,” said one white man who learned by venturing into the black areas of Pittsburg. “I suppose I always felt these motions are somehow obscene. You have to sway, forwards and backwards, with a controlled hip movement, while your shoulders stay level and your feet glide along the floor.” Others said the white middle classes never really got the hang of it. “The white jitterbug is oftener than not uncouth to look at… but the Negro original is quite another matter. His movements are never so exaggerated that they lack control, and there is an unmistakable dignity about his most violent figures,” said New York Times critic John Martin. The arrival of US soldiers in the UK saw the jitterbug make the journey across the Atlantic, but when the US soldiers went home, British women were advised to stop doing that “rude American dancing”.

The Twist

With its roots in the slave plantations and its associations with sex, the Twist gained widespread attention when the song of the same name, originally recorded by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, was picked up by Dick Clark, host Of TV programme American Bandstand, which was lampooned in the film Hairspray as the Corny Collins Show.

After trying and failing to book Ballard, Clark turned to Chubby Checker, whose version, first performed on TV on 6 August, 1960, became a huge hit. It took 18 months for the craze to catch on among the middle classes, but, by 1962, queues were forming outside the Peppermint Lounge, the stomping ground of celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe, to make it NY’s top Twisting venue. Initial disapproval of all that hip-swivelling soon ebbed away until parents started getting in on the act, causing much eye-rolling among teenage rebels. Arguably, however, the Twist’s coolest and sexiest outing didn’t come until 1994, when Uma Thurman and John Travolta took to the dance floor for Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist competition in Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction.

The Mashed Potato

IT is odd, really, that a dance named after a humble root vegetable should spawn not one, but three top 10 hits – Do The Mashed Potatoes and Mashed Potatoes USA, both by the James Brown Band, and Mashed Potato Time by Dee Dee Sharp – but by 1962, the world was going mad for the moves. Compared with later dance crazes, such as the Jump, which involved, well, jumping, the Mashed Potato is quite difficult to do, though there are many YouTube videos devoted to inducting newbies into the rite. Later the same year, Bobby Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers brought out Monster Mash, in which ghoulish arm movements were added to the fancy leg work.

The Slosh

Given it was beloved of middle-aged aunties at Scottish and Irish wedding receptions in the 1970s, you might assume the Slosh took its name from the inebriated state of those doing it, and that’s entirely possible. A type of line dance, it was often performed to Daniel Boone’s Beautiful Sunday or Engelbert Humperdinck’s Ten Guitars and involved much raising of legs and touching of heels, cowboy-style. In one episode of Still Game, Jack and Victor proved themselves to be expert exponents of the form, although this may have been the first and last time in the history of the Slosh that men were in any way involved in proceedings.

The Pogo

As anyone who was around in the late 1970s knows, the Pogo did exactly what it said on the tin: men and women – usually sporting safety pins, Doc Martens and Mohicans, jumped up and down with their torsos stiff, their legs together and their arms pinned to their sides. Since dancing like this makes it difficult to control your direction, Pogo-dancers frequently crashed into one another, cultivating precisely the anarchic atmosphere the Punk movement thrived on. Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious claimed he invented the move to mock those who came to gigs but were not really part of the Punk movement, while Shane MacGowan said it came about because the ponchos Vicious wore at that time didn’t allow for much movement. As Punk became more hardcore, the Pogo morphed into slam dancing and moshing.

The Macarena

The dance craze that swept the world in the summer of 1996 began life when a pair of middle-aged Spanish crooners, Antonio Romero and Rafael Ruiz, known as Los Del Rio, attended a private party of politicos in Caracas four years earlier.

Inspired by a performance by flamenco dancer Diana Patricia, Romero ad-libbed a tribute – in which he referred to her as Magdalena, as in Mary Magdalene, in recognition of her sexual power. How she reacted to being compared to a Biblical prostitute is not recorded, but, inspired by the meeting, the duo later wrote a song about a woman who celebrates her boyfriend going off to war by hooking up with two of his mates, changing the name to Macarena. In 1996, a remix by a trio of producers known as the Bayside Boys, with accompanying dance moves, hit the clubs of Florida before becoming a global sensation. So ubiquitous was the song during that year’s Democrat Convention that Al Gore used it to demonstrate his sense of humour. Trading on his reputation for stiffness, he told his audience he was about to perform his version of the dance then stood motionless before asking if they’d like to see it again. Also in 1996, 50,000 people performed the Macarena in New York’s Yankee Stadium, breaking the world record for group dancing.

The Hammer Dance

Even if you don’t remember the dance, you’ll remember the trousers – baggy at the top, with a saggy crotch area, but tight from the knee down – in which Stanley Burrell, aka MC Hammer, strutted his stuff. Already successful, the rapper created a nightclub phenomenon when he released the song U Can’t Touch This, with its distinctive sequence of jumps and body rolls. MC Hammer made so much money from the craze he built a trousers-shaped swimming pool in the grounds of his home. Sadly, the rise in his commercial success coincided with a dip in his artistic credibility, particularly after he invited cameras into his life for the reality TV show Hammertime. Also, he squandered tens of millions on a 200-strong entourage, cars and a mansion with Italian marble floors and solid gold toilets. After being declared bankrupt in 1997, he found religion, was ordained as a minister and has since taken to Twitter, quickly amassing 3 million followers.

The Lambada

The Brazilian dance which combines aspects of the Merengue, the Maxixe and the Carimbo, took off in the early 1990s after French entrepreneur Olivier Lamotte D’Incamps visited Porto Seguro and saw the locals dancing it. Back in France, he brought together several Senegalese musicians to form the band Kaoma and record Lambada, which sold 5 million copies in 1989. The dance’s link with the Maxixe – notorious for its highly suggestive movements – and the fact it was performed by women in short skirts over thongs meant it gained a kind of Dirty Dancing image; although next to twerking, it’s pretty tame.

Gangnam Style

The playgrounds of the UK didn’t know what had hit them when South Korean rapper Psy’s song, dance and internet meme Gangnam Style was unleashed in July 2012. Suddenly, primary school pupils were dancing with their legs apart and their hands out in front of them, as if they were riding an invisible horse, while screaming “ooh, sexy lady” at the tops of their voices. The dance craze reached its zenith when, explaining he was no longer the world’s most famous South Korean, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, performed a version of the dance with Psy declaring it to be a force for world peace. As of earlier this month, the music video has been viewed more than 1.7 billion times on YouTube. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1