Chanel: When thinking about Miley’s horrible performance at the VMAs, I let out a big sigh. Where do I begin? There was so much wrong with her performance. It wasn’t tasteful or well-choreographed. I wasn’t expecting her to slip back into her role as Hannah Montana and give the VMAs a sweet and boring show, but I sure wasn’t expecting that.
As strippers, we perform on stage for one to three songs per set. Sometimes routines are choreographed well to music and other times it’s short and sweet and then it’s over. When it comes to twerking, it’s about more than just having a big round booty. I’ve seen white women and black women and every color in between shake it well on stage. There’s no huge thought process behind it but it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing, just like any other dance move. When (most) strippers shake it, we know it’s for entertainment, so it should be good which can mean extra tips on stage and off stage in terms of lapdance sales. When Miley shakes it, it’s because she’s trying to shock us with her uncoordinated hip wiggles. She’s not like the strippers in her song lyrics. I’ve seen those women, and they are much better than she will ever be.
The show was much like her video, complete with human accessories. I wasn’t shocked that there were big booty black women dancing on stage with her. It wouldn’t be the first time people have accessorized with black women (or women of any race) for entertainment. Countless hip-hop and rap videos use black heavy-bottomed women as accessories. As a black mixed woman, I’m offended by Miley’s choice to do this. I’m not sure what she’s trying to prove or say by hiring black women to act as her friends in the “We Can’t Stop” video and on the VMAs. It’s more than the bad pancake booty twerking. It’s the selected parts of black culture she attempted to portray though her song and dance. There’s more to black and hip-hop/rap culture than what she is picking apart and glorifying. She only glorifies ideas from the way black and hip hop/rap culture is portrayed in the media—grills, twerking, big butts, getting high, being surrounded by hot women and acquiring money. Her performance and song lyrics show that she is completely unaware of what actually defines black and rap/hip hop culture.
What really bothered me was that she’s trying so, so hard to show the world she’s not cute little Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus anymore. When Britney Spears did the 2000 VMAs she stripped in front of the crowd, revealing a sparkly nude bra and pants outfit underneath a tearaway suit. The performance was her coming of age in the music industry and it was well-choreographed and sung. Madonna’s explicit “Justify My Love” video was racy but tasteful and artistic. Shock value helped her transition from one image to the next through her music and video art. When Nicki Minaj was performing and she bent over in front to shake her oh-so-obviously enhanced behind, she made it part of the performance rather than just an easy move to grab attention. When Britney Spears did the 2000 VMAs, I wanted to see more. When Miley did it I wanted to wash my eyes. She’s raunchy, inartistic and unoriginal. Playing air guitar with yourself on stage: check. Tastelessly glorifying parts of black culture: check. Obnoxiously sticking your tongue out numerous times: check. Singing about drugs: check. Everything she did has been done. She wanted to shock and awe us at the VMAs, and that’s what she did—but not in the way she hoped.
Kat: Thanks to Miley Cyrus, female strip club customers have actually been slightly easier for me to deal with lately. While “twerk” has been part of strip club vernacular for years, only in the past few months have women at the rack begged me to twerk. The first time I had a doe-eyed girl plead earnestly, “Can you twerk for me?” I had to choke back laughter. But then I learned that all I have to do is flex one butt cheek and I’m met with a disproportionate amount of fanfare. Honestly, “Can you show me the difference between twerking and making it clap?” is a welcome change from the usual “work the pole, bitch!” (actual quotes). I probably also owe Miley some gratitude for setting the twerking bar so low that those who apparently have never seen a Ciara video think I know what I’m doing.
Say “female customers” and most strippers will roll their eyes and sigh. Lady raunch culture personified in heels it doesn’t know how to walk in, trolling for anything to brag about on Monday morning. They tuck single dollars in their cleavage or stare at me with desperate eyes because they can’t yell with their teeth clenched around a bill, and I die a little on the inside and pretend I don’t see them. I stay out of arm’s reach, because withholding attention will cause them to slap me so hard that it leaves a mark. I can’t deliver what they want (unless it’s twerking from a safe distance) because I don’t know what that is, because they don’t actually know either, and because they wouldn’t spend money even if they did.
The other night though, when a girl who was there with two guy friends waved a $20 at me and started to climb on stage, going along with it seemed like the path of least resistance, not to mention that it was slow and I could use the $20. Plus I felt kind of sorry for her in her rainbow tube top and black bra and I guess I was feeling charitable.
Before I knew what was happening, she had yanked the tube top down and the bra up and was lying on her back waiting for me do something awesome. Her friends looked scared. I hovered my head over her crotch and waved my hair around. Then I crawled backwards on her and shook my ass over her face. After that I was too tired to go on so I stood up and clapped like “let’s hear it for this drunk girl” so she’d get off my stage. I tried to lead her to the stairs but she was set on climbing down from where she’d climbed up. I turned my back for a second and she was twitching on the ground like an upside down beetle with two stools lying next to her and the bouncer trying to help. I felt bad. She was annoying but she didn’t deserve to get hurt. The Argentine stripper who was up after me whispered, winking, “Hey I know we don’t like the womens but next time try not to kill them?”
Miley’s performance on the VMAs reminded me of that customer as she pretended to motorboat (some people are saying simulated anilingus) and then slapped a bootylicious black backup dancer. Those wannabe porn expressions (you’d bite your tongue off if you were actually fucking) reminded me of every new stripper who thinks she’s hot shit before she realizes that she’s not. The hand gestures reminded me of the quintessential White Girl Who Just Started Dating a Black Guy who’s suddenly started collecting Jordans and dropping N-bombs (Not that any of those are mutually exclusive). Really, the main difference between Miley and the suburban white girls born in the early nineties who try to navigate their sexuality by demanding attention at my work is that they’re fortunate enough not to have their embarrassing antics televised and preserved for posterity (and they didn’t star in any Disney shows that I know of).
Miley should have known better than to wear vinyl shorts without a seam (because those look good on no one; while they flattened her ass, they would have looked like a diaper on me) but she still doesn’t deserve to have her body bashed the way it has been. Can we focus on the real issues? She committed many crimes during her performance: hunched shoulders, frenetic pelvic thrusting, repeatedly flashing her uvula, darting around all willy-nilly like she was playing tag, kicking unpointed feet like she was wearing bath slippers that would fly off, waving her arms like she was doing jumping jacks, and crotch grabbing. The only thing that was missing was throwing The Shocker. Oh, and actual twerking.
The thing about picking and choosing what you want from a culture that you’re not a part of is that it’s not very cool. Be it black culture, strip club culture, or black strip club culture, you’re going to have to back that azz up, so to speak. Miley didn’t twerk once. The closest she came to twerking was bending over with locked knees a few times, once “on” Robin Thicke. That could be labeled “freak dancing” (Fox News voice), but certainly not twerking. How every news outlet has missed this is beyond me. Even WorldStar called it “twerking.” So should it be surprising that there’s an entire article in Jezebel about how butts “are back” and not one mention of the places where they never went away? The places where people go with the express purpose of paying to see butts?
Bubbles: Have we all forgotten Miley’s 2009 Teen Choice performance, in which she spun around a pole on a prop ice cream cart? The Miley of “Party in the U.S.A.” took inspiration from the strip club, and the outrage, such as it was, centered around the appropriateness of a 16-year-old performing stripper moves. Her pole dancing then showed the same level of proficiency as her booty dancing now.
Twerking (I use “twerking” interchangeably with “booty popping” or “booty dancing” since that’s what I’ve known it as for longer) as we know it now owes a debt to developments in strip clubs, specifically the big, successful black clubs of the Southern U.S. I will never forget the first time I watched a dancer popping it in a headstand. It was just like the first time I watched a dancer climb to the top of the pole and flip backwards into an inverted hold; it was the same kind of jaw-dropping amazement when you see someone do something you didn’t know the human body could do.
Stand up and try to control the individual muscles in your lower back, buttocks, and thighs, and try to rotate your hips while also moving them back and forth and up and down and then try to think of it as anything other than a highly sophisticated dance form. Twerking well takes skill, practice, and familiarity with your body. It’s comparable to belly dancing in the level of control that’s required. And just like with pole dancing, there are classes for bounce and making it clap and a twerk-based workout. It also lends itself beautifully to YouTube videos. But unlike pole dancing, the comments aren’t so much “how graceful!” and “wow!” Often the comments are focused more on the bodies of the performers than the physical skill and control they’re exhibiting while performing. Bodies that are, almost exclusively, those of black women.
There is a certain type of pole dancer who expends a lot of energy trying to distance her sport from stripping and all its unseemly associations. They insist that pole dancing comes from the circus arts, from (mostly male) traditions in China and India, and that the strip club isn’t where the art originated. This is delusional, and most pole dancers realize that their use of music, flowing transitions, tricks, and wardrobe come from the strip club. The sanitizing type of athlete, who wants to use an art form that has been popularized by strippers without acknowledging its past, deeply offends strippers. Don’t erase us from this art form. Don’t sanitize it.
To see pole dancing denatured to the point where it’s (sort of) performed on a Teen Choice awards show is depressing in part because while we want acknowledgment most of us don’t long for anything so mundane as respectability. There are two reasons that I’m uncomfortable when I see stripper culture reflected in the mainstream, be it pole dancing or the wearing of tall platform heels. First, I’m irritated when it’s done badly. Nothing is more annoying than a pole dancer who flexes her feet or has clunky transitions. Secondly, I’m mad that they just took the cool parts of stripping without suffering the indignities of slow shifts, grabby customers, aching knees, and low-level (relative to other forms of sex work) social stigma.
Take those minor annoyances and magnify them a hundred million times with the assimiliation—and I mean the Borg-type assimilation, where the source is obliterated and subsumed to an evil monolithic whole—of booty dancing into popular culture. As Kat said, “picking and choosing what you want from a culture that you’re not a part of is…not very cool.” Sure, every stripper has earned her pole skills or ability to walk in heels the hard way, but take off my makeup and put me in jeans and no one can identify me as a stripper on sight. Guess what’s different about the people who brought us booty dancing?
This great post by Cosmic Yoruba uses the release of the “We Can’t Stop” video as a departure point for a thorough lesson on ass-centric dance traditions. She cuts to the chase: “Thus while Miley Cyrus gets a free pass, the set of double-standards that lie at the heart of white swag means that African-American women who twerk are denied the same […] when African-American girls and women upload videos of themselves twerking they are usually subject to internet trolling.” Yup. To take that abuse, then see someone execute something not remotely near what you’re doing? When popular arts are picked up by artists they are no longer the property of the people from whom they originated, and then some pop star is permanently associated with this thing that used to be fun and cool and now is ruined because you can see cheerleaders twerking. Performers can’t insert themselves into a culture just by mimicking their moves. Pole dancing doesn’t make you a stripper, and twerking doesn’t make you black, but a dance isn’t separable from the people who danced it.