Photos by Tom Johnson
Time was, twerking was just an obscure, highly sexualized dance that you occasionally heard mentioned in Dirty South rap tunes. It really had no more impact on our collective lexicon than words like "lean" or "guap." Sure, JT said it in "SexyBack" and that was one of the biggest songs of the last decade. But it was a throwaway line, the word often mistaken for merely just "work." Chances were that, unless you knew the difference between Young Money and Cash Money, you probably wouldn't know what a "twerk team" was, either.
But when a young, white, American popstar awkwardly shook her Disney Club glutes against a goateed feminist folk devil, the word gate-crashed the lexicon of the middle class and middlebrow. Within seconds, Twitter was all over it like Bobby Thicke's hands on a groupie's ass. Even if you're the kind of person who just uses Twitter to check the football scores and make the occasional bomb threat, you can't have failed to notice the raging internet shitstorm of post-feminist criticism and BuzzFeed gif posts.
The journalists sneered and wrung their hands in an endless succession of think-pieces. Readers mostly wondered why. The Oxford Dictionary put it in this year's copy. Twerking has gone from being something that went on at Atlanta block parties to America's latest cultural export; the new Coca-Cola or "George W. Bush is stupid."
But when I heard about the inaugural UK Twerking Championships, I decided it would be the perfect way to put aside the bullshit and experience the culture firsthand. Even though I wasn't sure at that point if twerking really represented any kind of culture, or if Britain had one beyond people sharing articles about it on social media.
A highlights reel from the UK Twerking Championships
The event was organized by The Jump Off, a "Hip Hop Media, Sports & Entertainment destination" best known for their long-running series of rap battles at the same venue, the Scala in King's Cross, London. Presumably they'd grown tired of slightly fat guys in matching fitted cap and varsity jacket combos dropping alliterative verses about each other's parents and had decided to branch out, creating an arena in which people could go to war with their butts.
The Scala is one of those medium-size, multi-purpose central London venues that insists on metal detector searches at Decemberists gigs and pouring plastic bottles of Beck's into plastic cups for extra safety. Upcoming events include Har Mar Superstar, The View, and Ultimate Karaoke. I've had some great nights here, but it's not really a venue that suggests "highly sexed."
But tonight, girls were dolled up to the nines in that post-Rihanna, punk-meets-dancehall-meets-Fantazia-rave look. Belly tops, high-waisted black leggings, studs, spikey hats, and T-shirts adorned with slogans were the order of the day. If I were a fashion writer I'd probably say I felt like I was trapped in some nuts IRL Mad Max deathfight sequence with loads of Andre 3000-worshipping ghetto gents and their cyborg dominatrixes. But I'm not, so I'll just say it looked a lot like tumblr.
The anticipation was building as the girls began to pose and preen in front of the gathered cameras, like Formula 1 drivers stroking their cars and adjusting their wraparound shades before a race starts. Ostensibly a warmup, this part of the night was also a chance for the crowd to see the girls in a brief moment of tranquillity before The Scala descended into madness.
Presenting their hinds and rumps to the whooping, iPhone-clutching crowd, this wasn't a situation that'd get a whole lot of props in Jezebel's comment section. But the girls seemed more than up for it, and the crowd had a pretty even male-female split. To me, it seemed more about physical appreciation than objectification, but there's undeniably something a bit "problematic" about teenage girls in Lycra shaking their asses at smartphone screens.
This is "Team Lengman" warming up. They said they were wearing the balaclavas to save themselves from embarrassment (were their moms in the building?) but had actually stumbled upon a pretty good look, a kind of "high street paramilitary" swag dreamt up by RiRi and the Blac Block. Whatever the idea behind it was, the balaclavas worked perfectly for Team Lengman.
When's it's done properly, twerking is a sexually aggressive, affronting dance that only the most virile and confident of men will dare tangle with. It's not meant to be Miley Cyrus twitching like a dying fish in front of the Jonas Brothers. There's a physical, brazen skill that's been lacking in recent versions, which have about as much in common with the real thing as somebody's drunken body-popping cousin does to the original New York B-Boys.
Looking on at the pomp and ceremony surrounding the event, I wondered if twerking competitions had the potential to become international sporting affairs. Perhaps it could go the same way that disco did, rising from the underground, adopted by the fashionistas, landing in the mainstream, becoming a global phenomenon, and eventually stagnating in the back rooms of Vegas bars, only to be revived again years later by hip kids nostalgic for the music their parents made them listen to at family weddings.
I wondered where the girls had learned these moves, and where they had practiced them. I couldn't help but feel that I was in the climax of one of those Step Up movies they show on cable in the middle of the afternoon. Was I seeing the culmination of years of hopes, dreams, and backbreaking training? Or was this just a hastily organized event riding on the coattails of a craze?
But when the main event finally kicked off, I was left with no doubts. The duos were first up, scattering around the stage like Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation crew with a bad case of Saint Vitus' Dance. They shook, they rippled, they split... they looked utterly out of control and totally empowered at the same time. They were rabid and they were mean.
The audience lost their shit, hollering at every quick step change, throwing their iPhones up in the air like illuminated placards voicing their approval. Finally, The Scala became the closest thing I've ever experienced to the Christina Aguilera video I dreamed of being in as a teenager.
Judging the competition were a motley crew of music business people and dance experts. I couldn't make out their names over the crowd noise, but they included the woman who choreographed Lily Allen's recent twerking video, a guy who worked for Spearmint Rhino in some capacity, and another man from the music biz, who we were told had worked with "big name artists."
I got the impression it was availability rather than expertise that had gotten them the gig, but they were only really there to enhance the sense of pageantry, like the fake judges at the end of a PlayStation boxing game.
As the judges started announcing the winners of each round, the crowd began to understand the narrative. Eventually the MC started to speak to the twerkers. They were a fairly mixed bag of teenage girls from across London, with a Mancunian and a Lithuanian thrown in for good measure. As they repped their respective ends, the crowd revealed their allegiances. South London got the biggest response and, predictably, Lithuania got the least. I guess the good people of Vilnius ain't got no love for the twerk game.
The Lithuanian competitor had a take on twerking that was a little more pedestrian than some of the other ladies, but for some reason the crowd seemed to respond to her pretty well, despite the fact her moves only really consisted of shaking her hair around like a lion that had just stepped out of a kiddie pool.
Interestingly, the music soundtracking the night wasn't a sound traditionally associated with twerking. Despite the DJ offering the dancers a choice of "bashment or hip-hop," almost every girl chose bashment in every round. I wondered if what I was seeing was actually a much more UK-centric take on the form, like these girls had taken daggering and dutty wine and turned them into something more transatlantic, throwing a bit of twerking in for the crowd.
Something that I'd initially thought was merely an attempt to jump on a bandwagon was actually a kind of exercise in interpretation, like when the Royal Ballet takes on modern material. This was twerking, but with a British flava and, for that, it became much more culturally and musically interesting than it could have been.
So what did I learn? Well, I learned that when music is played loudly in a club environment, some people like to move their bodies to it in a way that befits the rhythms of the song. Often some of these people will be girls, but sometimes they will be men, too. Sometimes the men will try to dance with the girls. Some of them will be drinking.
Essentially, I didn’t learn anything. It’s a fucking dance. What could I learn? It’s people moving their bodies around to music in a club. Did the Macarena tell us anything about the immigrant experience in Clinton’s America? Did anyone learn anything about life in post-Franco Spain from Las Ketchup? Of course they didn't. Trying to find the answers to questions about gender and race at a twerking competition is like looking for the meaning of life at an Iron Maiden concert.
More big nights out:
WATCH – The Gabber Night
WATCH – The People Vs Big Night Out