An Anchorage dance class aims to bring twerking back to its roots

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Feb. 25—Twerking. It's a dance move typically performed by women and often viewed as provocative — when twerking surfaces in Alaska, it's usually on a club floor.

An Anchorage dance class is trying to put twerking back where it all started, as a decades-old movement with West African roots that empowers women by connecting them to their heritage and their bodies.

The gyrating motion gained mainstream attention — and some shocked reactions — a decade ago with Miley Cyrus' 2013 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, when she shimmied her backside against Robin Thicke's crotch. It was Cyrus who got the credit for helping put "twerk" in the dictionary. (Oxford English Dictionary researchers actually found that the word, originally spelled "twirk," was used by English speakers as early as 1820.)

Kasha Smith-Poynter, the woman who teaches the Anchorage class, says the inherent issue with the stereotypical pop culture version of the move is that the rise of twerk's popularity was propelled by Western society, and the dance's history and culture were lost along the way.

Twerk, and the women doing it, began to be labeled as inappropriate and became oversexualized — an inaccurate reflection of the dance's origins, Smith-Poynter said.

Her class provides a creative space where students form bonds and celebrate what their bodies can do.

"There's no finer art form than twerk," Smith-Poynter said during a recent interview.

'It's seen as this dance for men, and it's not'

Removing the stigma is just one of the reasons Smith-Poynter teaches twerk to women in Anchorage. Along with the occasional booty pop and bounce, her classes are centered around camaraderie, female empowerment and self-exploration.

On a January night, music pulsated through Flow Zone Dance Studio's dark hallways from Smith-Poynter's class. A few pink and blue lights illuminated the corners.

Class takes place every Friday night at the small Taku/Campbell dance studio, located in the upper unit of a building tucked between business parks. The class is open to women and people who identify as women, ages 21 and older.

Smith-Poynter said she likes to keep the lights low when possible: It gives women privacy to mess up, and sometimes only a handful of students attend.

Dancers have ranged in age from 21 to 65.

None of that really matters to Smith-Poynter, she said: These classes are about learning movement, feeling sensual and exploring femininity.

Darla Roundtree, a Zumba instructor, attended a class last month. She moved confidently in her two-toned teal leggings and bare feet, hoop earrings jostling above her shoulders with every step.

"I think it's very uncommon for our sexuality and sensuality to be expressed without men involved," Roundtree said. "We've been sexualized and so it's seen as this dance for men, and it's not, it's for expression. It's for the power that you feel in your body."

The DNA of the dance

Twerking has evolved and transformed from its origins in West Africa. The basic movement resembles the Ivorian dance mapouka, which women used as a form of celebration and to worship.

The dance arrived in America with enslaved Africans who struggled to retain their culture, said Smith-Poynter, who added that during slavery, African drumming and dancing in the South became limited to one day per week, if allowed at all.

She said it's important that her classes help honor the origins of twerk and help educate those who have questions.

Smith-Poynter's message mirrors the mantra from singer, rapper, flutist — and twerk enthusiast — Lizzo.

On a visit to the Library of Congress last September, Lizzo tested out a number of historic flutes, including an 1800-era crystal instrument that belonged to former President James Madison. There, she played a few riffs on the flute and then added some tremolos. She also twerked.

"Black people carried the origins of this dance through our DNA, through our blood, through our bones," Lizzo said during a 2021 TED Talk. "From TikTok trends to songs and humor, we see so much erasure of what Black people have created, so I want to do everything in my power to prevent the erasure of Blackness from twerking."

One of the first recorded uses of the term "twerking" was by New Orleans rapper DJ Jubilee in his 1993 "Do the Jubilee All." Black women were also twerking in music videos long before the 2013 VMA debacle, but when parental advisories were implemented in the mid-1980s, rap came under attack — as did the dance moves seen in videos, Smith-Poynter said.

Some considered the move so provocative it became criminal: In 2013, more than two dozen San Diego high school students were suspended and charged with sexual harassment for their role in a twerking dance video.

The roots of the moves got lost in the controversy, Smith-Poynter said.

"We always have to have that understanding of origin or else we're out here kind of blind," she said.

Smith-Poynter said her passion to share the origins of twerking are rooted in a desire to represent Black stories from a culturally accurate perspective. Born and raised in Anchorage, she has been dancing since she was 4 years old, though she didn't always feel represented in those spaces.

"I won't necessarily say having the first Black president was like, a real push in that direction for twerk," Smith-Poynter said. "But I'm just saying that there was an acceptance of culture, there was an acknowledgement of culture, there was an empowerment of culture that happened ..."

A start as pandemic therapy

The twerking classes began in 2020 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, led by Smith-Poynter's friend, EJ Williams.

Smith-Poynter was worried when in-person activities and businesses halted during the pandemic. She was dead set on maintaining her workout routine.

She and Williams began doing virtual classes with each other. Not long after, Smith-Poynter helped foster a core group of women who twerked, danced and talked their way together through the pandemic.

"It really became this, like, really therapeutic thing," she said.

In 2021, Smith-Poynter became a certified instructor and began offering her own classes, which feature a range of 15 twerk techniques used throughout four different dance styles, including Hip-Hop, Afrobeats, Dancehall and Twerk.

The "twerkout" class costs $15 and promises to have you "poppin', lockin', and droppin' your way to a bangin' healthy body" in addition to discovering "your inner Beyonce," according to her website, which invites participants to "TWERK LIKE A BOSS."

In the dance studio last month, Roundtree watched Smith-Poynter in the classroom's mirror. She mimicked the moves and worked through the choreography, often laughing and talking about her moments of struggle during short breaks.

Roundtree loves that Anchorage is diverse and said that the twerk class offers another avenue for people.

"You don't necessarily have to feel confident in the movements but if you love the music, your body will start moving," she said. "It just enlivens and makes your life more juicy."

Tey Moné, another participant in the class, said twerking lets her explore physical expression without feeling judged.

She studied herself in the mirror with intensity. The class ended and Moné, wearing a black crop top, bike shorts and oversized socks, continued twerking as she slowly gathered her belongings.

"Just to come to this class, I just feel at home," she said. "It's just freedom for me."