Twerking is a huge part of the collective pop culture consciousness, but how much do you really know about its history? Sure, you know Miley Cyrus did it and got in trouble for cultural appropriation, but do you know why? The term “twerking” has been around for over twenty years—since back when Miley was still in diapers. The dance move itself originates in African culture and has been around for generations, but wasn’t seen in American culture until DJ Jubilee brought it to the New Orleans bounce scene with “Do The Jubilee All," which included lyrics like, “Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk twerk twerk baby, twerk twerk twerk.”
What was that, you wanted us to twerk? Cheeky Blakk, another NOLA bounce legend, released “Twerk Something” in 1995, and Dj Jubilee chimed back in with 1997's “Get Ready Ready,” another track encouraging listeners to shake their booties. The early 2000s saw Atlanta’s Yin Yang Twins take up the twerk, with "Whistle While You Twurk" (2000) and "Say I Yi Yi" (2002), which included 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." Master P also got on the twerk train with “Twerk That Thang” in 2000.
So far, only men had talked about twerking, and it might not be a dance move your mom knows the name of now if Beyoncé hadn’t adopted it too. Of course it was Beyoncé at the beginning--you wouldn’t think the fledgling super star to be anything less than before her time. In Destiny’s Child’s 1999 hit “Jumpin’ Jumpin’’”, the girls sang about ladies jumpin’, and of course, “twirk”-ing, in the club. The girls also have an unreleased track that was meant for their last album, Destiny Fulfilled, called “Twirk," which started floating around in the late 00s.Bey also including twerking in “Check On It” (2005) where she sung "Dip it, pop it, twerk it, stop it, check on me tonight."
Bubba Sparxxx and Timbaland also released “Twerk A Little” in 2001, making Bubba the first white guy to say “twerk” in pop culture. The term was added to the Urban Dictionary in 2003 with the definition "To work one's body, as in dancing, especially the rear end." By the mid-00s, twerking was official. That same year Lil Jon teamed up with twerk veterans the Yin Yang Twins for “Get Low," and twerking made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart.
By 2006, twerking was established in pop, with Justin Timberlake asking to “see what ya twerkin’ with” in his sophomore album hit, "SexyBack." That same year, Huey's ode to twerking "Pop, Lock & Drop It" also came out. In 2009, an Atlanta dance collective led by “Lady L,BeTTy BuTT&&Mizztwerksum” [ sic ] and going by the name Twerk Team, posted their first video to YouTube. It was of the three (then teenagers) twerking to Soulja Boy’s “Donk." Now the collective has over 500k subscribers, with millions of hits on their videos, and in 2012 they were name checked in Wacka Flocka Flame and Drake’s “Round Of Applause” with the lyric, "Bounce that ass, shake that ass like the Twerk Team."
It wasn’t until 2012 that twerking really caught fire, however. Juicy J released “Bandz A Make Her Dance” with the lyric “Start twerking when she hear her song," French Montana’s “Pop That” featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross asked “What you twerkin’ with?” while Diplo and Nicky Da B’s “Express Yourself” was credited with making twerking “the most popular dance move since the Dougie,” thanks to a video featuring an array of dancers twerking (some even upside down).
And then along came Miley... In 2013, Miley posted a video of herself twerking in a unicorn onesie to “Wop” by J. Dash & Flo Rida, and it quickly went viral, as did a video of her twerking at a Juicy J concert. Later that year, much to the utter dismay of just about everyone, Miley twerked up on Robin Thicke at the VMAs. The move quickly courted controversy as Miley was accused of cultural appropriation, which extended to her video for “We Can’t Stop” also featuring twerking. Miley twerking is the reason why your white mothers know about the dance craze. Meanwhile, Jay-Z even called out Miley on “Somewhere In America” with the line “Somewhere in America/ Miley Cyrus is still twerkin,’" a not unsubtle dig at her misappropriation of black culture.
Since then, twerking has become ubiquitous--at least in white pop culture, where it hadn’t been before. Miley twerking was problematic, but the move has been embraced across pop culture. Danny Brown released “Express Yourself” in 2013 (yes, inspired by the Diplo hit by the same name) to celebrate twerking, while Rihanna schooled the world on twerking, returning it to its rightful roots in her video for “Pour It Up” (2013). Nicki Minaj was also champion of the twerk in “Twerk It” (2013) with Busta Rhymes, “Shakin’ It 4 Daddy” (2010) with Robin Thicke, “Dance A$$” (2011) with Big Sean and “Clappers” (2013) with Wale, “Get Like Me” (2013) with Nelly and “I’m Out” (2013) with Ciara. And of course, there’s “Anaconda” (2014)
In 2013, “twerk” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. That same year, Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce, set a Guinness World Record for Most People Twerking Simultaneously. Meanwhile, in 2014 Taylor Swift created some controversy when she twerked in her video for “Shake It Off” courting allegations of cultural appropriation. Twerking, despite being fairly young in modern American pop culture, has a rich and storied history. And it looks like it’s here to stay.