Kimari Brand may hail from Texas, but she’s never been into the “southern Belle” archetype. Born in California and raised in Dallas, Brand has been twerking since it was called the “tootsie roll” and the “butterfly” in the 90’s. Since then, she’s transformed her expertise in rump-shaking into a vehicle for girl power as the original Twerk Scholar.
As Miley Cyrus was at the height of revamping her image—on the backs of black women, literally—to fit that of a twerking rebel, Brand was returning from a study abroad trip in Nicaragua where she had been studying gender, race, class, and freedom vis-à-vis Afro-Caribbean culture. The timing of this trip, and Miley’s public evolution, created the perfect conditions for Brand to explore twerking on a deeper level. Teaming up with a friend, Irma Garcia, who needed to produce a video for her own class, Brand discussed her research in the short documentary Twerk It Girl.
“When I got [to Nicaragua] they were letting us do an independent research project... I decided to do twerking or ‘African-American expressive dance culture,’” the 23-year-old said. She wanted to know “if women [twerked] there, how they felt about doing it, the different naming politics, how free they felt, and where they performed it.” Brand had high hopes for her research. She recalled with laughter, “I was gonna change the world with it. Everybody’s about to know about twerking, the whole world. Y’all just wait for it. The revolution is about to come through this thing!”
Before journeying to Central America, Brand’s twerking had already gained her a bit of notoriety at the University of Texas where she attended school. Reminiscing about her early college experience, Brand said, “I would just be twerking in the living room with my roommate. We would literally be twerking for like 15 minutes. Just dancing, us alone. Sacred space. Togetherness. And sweating.” Soon fellow students would join her at her apartment for private twerk lessons.
Even then, before Cyrus took to the MTV Video Music Awards stage to bust it open for Robin Thicke, the implications of a famous white girl doing a dance that Brand and Black girls like her had been doing in their communities for years, were felt. She shared this story about her personal experience with the pop star and her antics:
“I saw Miley Cyrus at a Juicy J concert [near campus] before she really blew up for it. And the next thing you know, one of my colleagues came up to me and said, ‘Kimari I’m ready to twerk with you now because I saw Miley Cyrus twerking so I can do it!’ And I said ‘Yes girl! You can. You’re right.’ If she felt empowered by [Cyrus], then that was awesome for me because now she would come to my class. But she had felt so ashamed [before].”
Brand is no stranger to feelings of shame surrounding twerking. At a new student orientation aimed at UT’s incoming Black freshmen, a popular historically black sorority showed a video that was supposed to teach first year black women proper etiquette at college parties. The video, made by members of the sorority, included some do’s and don’ts - and one scene in particular placed twerking prominently on the don’t list. “It blew my mind! I was like ‘what?! NO! This is why I came to college! To twerk everywhere!’” Brand remembered.
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Navigating respectability politics at her new school meant that more was at stake for Brand than just her reputation. Faced with a personal emergency and the impending costs of college, Brand had started working as a stripper at the age of 18. At that time, twerking was both a way of life and her livelihood. We live in a culture where slut-shaming is pervasive, and strippers are often the target, made to feel guilt and shame for their profession. Under this pressure, Brand quit the job shortly after starting school. In a moment of vulnerability when we spoke, she responded to Kanye West’s recent comments about his ex-girlfriend and former stripper, Amber Rose. “‘Stripper’ [when used as a slur] has been the word that kind of hurts, because [there are] so many negative connotations and attachment to that word. Like it’s horrible and degrading to society, and disempowering.”
But after six weeks in Nicaragua, Brand returned to United States with a new outlook on twerking and what it meant for women of color to be in control of their own bodies. She was determined to change the narrative about a dance that she identifies as a “cultural practice” and “tradition” in African-American communities. Having undergone a spiritual transformation after doing intensive research on women of color and cultural practices, Brand began the practice of intentionally twerking for empowerment.
“I didn’t even know what empowerment meant. All I knew was that [twerking] wasn’t disempowering. And I had to prove that it could be empowering. Then I realized that empowerment doesn’t have to be financial, or solely cover legal access. I realized that it could also be social. You can find power by connecting to your cultural roots, and being embedded in it by sharing and celebrating it with family and friends. Twerking is a practice and a ritual in my culture, in black culture, and in American culture.”
As a final project piece for a class on black women and their transnational experiences, Brand entered Juicy J’s $50,000 Twerk Scholarship Competition in 2013. Her commitment to twerking for empowerment also earned her a spot on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC to discuss how the practice of twerking can exist outside the context of deviance and in Cyrus’s case, appropriation. Under the new moniker Twerk Scholar, she also started an organization called Twerk Fit Clique at the University of Texas where she made her TwerkOut classes an official part of campus. “Twerkout fitness is a fun and sexy way to get fit and to express and explore your body. We encourage people to get comfortable with themselves. Find the jiggle, embrace the jiggle, and let it loose! ...We embrace [every part] of our bodies, all different kinds and types.”
After graduating in 2015, a successor took over the UT organization, which is now called Twerk Scholars. Brand teamed up with her cousin to expand TwerkOut Fitness to the Dallas area and the two of them have taught classes all over Texas and the surrounding states. Currently, she is working on another documentary about twerking that she hopes to present at South by Southwest.
At this rate, Brand will have us all twerking in no time, feeling sexy and powerful the whole way through. Follow Kimari on Instagram.