By Dalychia Saah. Photography by Deun Ivory.
“Young ladies sit with their legs closed,”, “Young ladies should be seen and not heard”, “Young ladies should not bring too much attention to themselves”, and “Young ladies do not dance wildly."
These were the daily messages I received from my mother and older women around me that taught me to shrink myself, to not take up space, and to not move freely. And I internalized these messages; my younger sister was the rebel. She was loud, would argue with anyone, and could always be found in the center of any circle dancing however she felt.
I remember wanting to join her and my friends as they freely moved their hips, but every time I would gather the courage, it was stopped by some older woman chastising my sister and another one running to find my mother to tell her how my sister was acting. Despite being proud Liberians, I spent many African parties sitting down, with my legs crossed, talking to adults about my future aspirations to be some highly-respected professional. It was a common joke among my friends that no one had ever seen me dance. “Can you dance?” someone always asked, “Yes, I just don’t like dancing in front of the adults” I responded, which seemed to be satisfactory answer. But even in my most private moments when I tried to dance and move my body, it felt so stiff and my hips so separate from the rest of me. Dancing, something that I’ve been told was innate to my Black/ African soul felt so foreign to me.
Fast forward to college where I attended a conservative PWI (predominately white institution), and though I found a sense of community in a hipster liberal group, I was always 1 of about 4 Black people. These parties were free from the eyes and scrutiny of Liberian adults, full of alcohol, and sweaty moving bodies. These white kids danced like no one was watching or sharing the space with them - arms flying in one direction, legs in the other, jumping, and hair flying everywhere. And I wasn’t even mad at them, I thought they looked so free, and that maybe this is a place that I can be free too. So, I closed my eyes and tried to find a steady beat to TuneYards that I could move to. And I felt it, no judgement and no rules.
For the first time, I wasn’t asking myself what do I do with my hands, or looking around to see who was watching me, or if I was doing too much, or not enough. I felt in my body and however it moved, it felt like home, like a place I was always meant to be.
Then Rill Rill would change to Teach Me How to Dougie, and I opened my eyes to see a sea of white faces smiling at me and chanting “come on Dalychia, teach me how to dougie”. As I quickly exited the floor, I felt flustered at their expectation for me to perform a low-key minstrel show and saddened at how brief that moment of bliss came and how quickly it was taken from me. At future parties, again I found myself in conversation more than in motion.
Out of my Liberian community, out of my PWI, I found myself open to intentionally dedicating time and energy to reconnecting with my body; of allowing my body to be loud, to take up space, to demand pleasure, to seduce, to establish boundaries, to be free.
As I was learning to be present in my body in a way I had never been before, I came across Fannie Sosa, who teaches and writes about twerking as a form of resistance to white supremacy. I immediately connected with this idea and started exploring the historical and present meaning of twerk. I learned that before twerk was sexualized and demonized by colonizers in West Africa, the dance represented celebration, desire, fertility, joy, and was considered a source for power and knowledge. I learned how the movement of the hips and booty that we associate with twerking, exists throughout the diaspora, that despite belonging to a group of people that were forcibly removed from our land, language, and culture that our bodies remembered and recreated these movements in the form of baile funk, dirty whine, mapouka, bounce, and twerk. As I turned this new-found knowledge into practice, I developed a meditative twerk routine.
Daily, I set aside time to put on my favorite twerk song, usually the instrumental to Juvenile's Back That Ass Up or Rihanna’s Work and I begin my meditative practice. I slow down every twerk position, allowing myself to really feel what it’s like for my body to be in each pose. I begin by slowly moving my ass in a circle, feeling every muscle in my hips. I gently move from standing and throwing that ass back to a downward dog like position as I walk it like a dog to being on my knees and bouncing my ass. I play with how it feels to move my hips clockwise, counterclockwise, up and down, right and left, how fast I can go how slow I can go. I end my practice by resting in the crybaby position and perfecting by booty isolations.
As I meditatively twerk, I twerk to reject my mother’s classism and respectability politics, my white friends’ microaggressions, and all my self-doubt. I twerk because it makes me feel sexy and divinely feminine. I twerk to affirm that I deserve to take up space in this world. I twerk as a reminder of how disciplined yet free my body is. I twerk when I want to celebrate an accomplishment, I twerk when I need to relieve stress, I twerk when my muscles feel tense, I twerk when I want to honor my ancestors. Twerking has taught me how to reclaim and reconnect with my Black body and how to move through life sensually, powerfully, and with pure Black joy.
Dalychia Saah is the co-creator of Afrosexology. She is from St. Louis and contributes to BGIO because she believes in the sacredness and healing that occurs when Black women gather. Masturbation is Dalychia's my go-to self-love practice, as it reminds her of all that she is able to give to herself, independent of others and affirms that her Black body deserves to feel pleasure. You can find Dalychia at social media @Afrosexology.