I was setting the table, trying to decide whether to fold the napkins in the shape of a rectangle or a triangle, when my wife came home from work.
“Hi honey!” I said. “What do you think? Rectangle or triangle?” I asked, holding up an example of each.
“Did you hear about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards?”
“No, I didn’t. What happened?”
“You didn’t hear about it! Do you live under a rock? All over the news, all over the internet, all over Facebook, it’s all anyone is talking about.”
“Really? There wasn’t anything in the Times about it.”
She rolled her eyes, and I made a mental note to never again come to dinner unprepared. There is certainly no lack of coverage of the event. Here are just some of the recent headlines:
“Miley Cyrus’s twerking routine was cultural appropriation at its worst” (The Guardian)
“Miley Cyrus, twerking, and the ‘sexual hazing’ of American pop stars” (Christian Science Monitor)
“Justin Timberlake Is Cool With Miley Cyrus Twerking” (Vibe)
“Miley Cyrus to Lead US Attack on Iran” (Bayard & Holmes)
Young people have always used dancing to meet other young people. I remember the dance scene from the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love, where Patrick Dempsey thinks he’s doing the latest dance from American Bandstand. He doesn’t know that he was watching some educational program instead of American Bandstand, and that it was the African Anteater ritual he was learning, and when he performs the ritual at his high school, all the other students think it’s just the latest dance that all the cool kids are doing, and soon they are all doing the African Anteater ritual. Miley Cyrus should have done that at the Video Music Awards.
When I was in middle school I learned something called the Chicken Dance. First you held your hands out in front of you and clapped your fingers and thumb together, like you had lobster claws. Next you tucked each fist into the adjacent armpit and flapped your elbows, like you had chicken wings and were trying to fly. Then you crouched down a little while simultaneously moving your rear end from side to side. Finally, you stood straight up and clapped your hands four times. There was a song that went with it so that you knew when to do the moves.
The venerable Oxford English Dictionary is apparently going to add “twerk” to its list, defining it as a verb meaning to “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.” Based on my years of experience, I am comfortable saying that the third movement of the Chicken Dance qualifies as a kind of proto-twerk.
But when I think of dances that involve hip movements and squatting stances, the kind of dances that, pretty much, anyone can do, I think most fondly of the Macarena, which rocked the world around the year 1996. Like the Chicken Dance, the Macarena also involved a repetitive series of dance moves that progressed from putting the hands out, to placing the hands on the body, to rotating the hips with twerk-like elements, and then ending with a clap. But the Macarena, which was named after the song that inspired the well-structured, was far more complex than the Chicken Dance, and represented a great leap forward in the evolution of dignified group-dancing.
Like scientists seeking a purer form of a metal, the twerkers have stripped dancing of the unnecessary hand and arm movements and unduly formalistic sequences, and distilled what was really its essence all along. So when you watch Miley Cyrus again, squatting and thrusting and unfurling her tongue, know that you are not watching a garish display of celebrity sexuality in cable television’s race to the bottom, but natural selection at its finest.