Columbusing, or the art of [white people] “discovering” something [people of color do] that is not new, ought to be declared the term of 2014. It probably will in 2015, if it manages to get itself Columbused by next year. Something that did recently get Columbused is twerking. Those who only pay attention to mainstream white culture associate it with Miley Cyrus, erasing its long history among those of African descent.
As Christiana Mbakwe says in The Origins of Twerking: What It Is, What It Means, and How It Got Appropriated:
The roots of twerking are rich. Variants of the dance exist in most places where there’s a high concentration of people of African descent. Its current iteration is commonly associated with the New Orleans bounce scene, however growing up in London I immediately associate it with the Dancehall scene.
If people took the time to explore the root of what’s been dubbed as the “twerk,” they’d realise its origins lie in West Africa. It’s strikingly similar to the Mapouka dance from Côte d’Ivoire, a dance done by women that focuses on the buttocks. It’s existed for centuries.
The similarities between twerking and another dance of non-white origins gets downright eerie around here:
If we view twerking through a Western prism, we’ll interpret it as being sexual, scandalous and controversial. However when you place it in its original context you’ll realise it’s a cultural expression of joy, with its function being primarily celebratory rather than for sexual provocation. Growing up, I saw it most frequently performed during joyful occasions — family gatherings and weddings. There was nothing scandalous about it, it was simply dancing.
What happened to bellydancing is what is happening to twerking.
The origins of bellydancing can be found in women’s-only gatherings. Bellydancing and/or dancing that involves sinuous motion, with a focus on the hips and arms, is a common way that women celebrate among themselves in various Arab and Arab-influenced cultures. Its origins had little to do with titillation and everything to do with celebration.
These days, bellydancing has been so thoroughly Columbused that it’s nigh impossible to find a book or website on its history or origins that isn’t written by a white person. Most of the websites I found belonged to white women who have adopted female Arabic first names as their sole monikers. I’d be complicit in Columbusing if I linked to any sources, so I haven’t.
That you can’t readily find an English-language history of bellydancing, i.e. about the dance when it existed outside of the knowledge of white people and was therefore the sole provenance of people of color, that is actually written by a person of color, is exactly the problem with cultural appropriation. The voices of the people whose culture originated the dance are drowned out by the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Leila”s vociferously defending their right to commodify others’ cultures for profit. That bellydancing is now widely considered an “exotic” crotch-stiffener for the male gaze is the rabbit-turd cherry adorning the steaming appropriation cow-pie.
Not helping are people like Annie Lennox, who express their disapproval of twerking by calling it “objectification.” Sexual objectification is a product of patriarchy and male privilege, not something that women bring upon themselves.
Hopefully, the pushback against the Columbusing and appropriation of twerking, as well those criticizing all the pearl-clutching over it, will ensure that its rightful history and origins don’t go the way of those of bellydancing.