How Twerking Became an Unlikely Scandal in Russia
Twerking has taken Vladimir Putin's country by storm, despite an increasing outcry from prudes and conservatives.
Twerk dancers Yana Mosokina and Olesya Iva. All photos by Masha Demianova
I am in an art gallery in south London, standing on all fours on a concrete floor and trying to shake my ass. I am sober. It's not just idle fun: I am trying to rediscover the great feminine power of the prehistoric sisterhood.
I'm at a twerkshop led by Brazilian artist Fannie Sosa, who believes that twerking is a way to connect to the wisdom of ancient witches. "These dances were celebratory rituals and a therapeutical practice," Sosa explains to me. "Twerking comes from the black culture of New Orleans, and it's about reclaiming the space, saying I'm alive, I'm beautiful, I'm visible. It's not just a cool move you can do in your room or in front of the camera, this is something which you need to take to a public space. This is where twerking really takes its power."
In my native Russia, twerking in public is no laughing matter. This year has seen a number of what can only be described as twerk scandals, in which girls dancing in public were met with public shaming, moralizing outcries, and even court sentences.
The first scandal in April involved a video filmed at a school concert in Orenburg, a Russian city close to the border of Kazakhstan. A dance troupe of schoolgirls, dressed as bumblebees, performed a twerk-based dance loosely inspired by Winnie the Pooh. The clip went viral, much to the disgust of the Russian authorities, and a special committee was launched to investigate all children's dance groups in the region.
Two weeks later, a video of six girls twerking in Novorossiysk in the south of Russia caught the attention of public prosecutors. The monumental sculpture behind them was a World War II monument called Malaya Zemlya, built to commemorate a Soviet military victory against the Nazis. This time, three women ended up in prison for ten to 15 days for petty hooliganism, and another two paid fines. The mother of one underage dancer also had to pay a fee for failing to instill proper moral development in her daughter.
In September, a 21-year-old dancer was jailed for ten days after filming a twerking video by another war memorial, this time in the small town of Pochepa in the Bryansk region. The parents of the other three dancers—who were aged between 12 and 15 years old—had to pay fines. Russian authorities inspected schools that the girls attended, and the army major father of one of the girls was forced to file for transfer to another military base.
As funny as they are, these surreal stories need to be put into the context of what it means to be a Russian women today, where women's rights remain largely unprotected—the country still doesn't have a law on domestic violence, for example. According to the crisis centre ANNA, which deals with problems of violence against children and women, every third woman in Russia is the subject of physical violence from her husband or partner. In a country where Vladimir Putin's government counts on support from Russian traditionalists and conservatives, feminism is still considered a dirty word.
Pavel Astakhov, the children's rights ombudsman who called the schoolgirls' bees dance "vulgar and offensive" in a statement, didn't have any objections when the police chief in Chechnya married a 17-year-old girl. Instead, he commented that sexual maturity for women in the Caucasus "[comes] earlier." In a way, the country's twerking scandals echo the world-famous case of Pussy Riot: They involved Russian women dancing in a space that is declared inappropriate, and being punished for it. Though these twerking dancers may not have had political intentions, their acts couldn't help but be political in a repressive country—and the ensuing fallout reflects the attitudes of Russian society towards female bodies.
We are not afraid of scandals as twerk for us is not something something criminal or dirty.
But these scandals have not dented the rising popularity of twerking in the country, where classes are opening in dance studios across Russian cities. I interviewed Yana Mosokina, a twerk and booty dance teacher in Moscow-based dance school Vozdukh. She teaches two twerking classes a week to groups of five to 20 people. "I think there are many reasons for learning how to twerk. Some girls come because they love trap and hip hop and want to learn to move to it, some are dancers who want to figure out the style," she says. "At the lessons, we first of all learn to move, understand your body, and control it. When you can control your body, the confidence comes naturally."
The management of Vozdukh isn't scared of how Russian lawmakers view twerking, either. "We are not afraid of scandals as twerk for us is not something something criminal or dirty," they said, before adding, "however, there is an age restriction for this class. Only people over 18 can attend it."
For Mosokina, twerking for them is a physical practice rather than anything else. "In Russia, twerk is surrounded by a cloud of stereotypes and extreme attention. For some reason most of girls think that twerk is all about tiny shorts and knee-high socks, and professional technique is something secondary. Twerk is not an easy dance, you need to be in good physical form."
Moscow-based stylist and feminist Olesya Iva has been learning to twerk for about six months. She discovered it by chance when a friend took her to the class, although she was attracted to it before through music videos. "I think twerk is a very dominant dance, in its essence", Iva says. "It's about sex, as moving your lower part of body in all the direction [sic], well, it's sexy."
Does she think that going to a twerking dance class in Russia is empowering or feminist? "It's really energetic and powerful, dominant, there is even something really masculine in it. Guess this is what you mean when you mention feminism. But you can see this feminism only [when] you dig really deep because women who go the classes hardly think of anything like that... But [I] have to say that most of my friends are feminist, and we all go to the classes and love twerk."
Another twerk devotee, Olga Kovaleva, works as a stylist's assistant and attends classes at XDance Studio near Gorky Park in Moscow. She discovered twerking through her love of hip hop and after seeing a twerk battle at Faces&Laces, a music festival and trade show in Moscow ("the energy was incredible, the movement mesmerising").
Is it possible for me to be [the] passive desired body when I put myself in the central space and I twerk?
"There are a lot of reasons why people learn to twerk. A lot of people want to try something new. It gives you freedom and confidence, it's a lot of physical work for muscle, and finally it's just fun. The classes have a great atmosphere, you're leaving [feeling] charged for a few days," she says.
When it comes to twerking, it's impossible not to mention the issues of cultural appropriation and racism. As Fannie Sosa points out, the dance form as we now it originates from the black community in New Orleans. The girls learning to twerk in studios from Moscow to St Petersburg are most likely 99 per cent white. While the issue of race is not a simple one in Russia—lots of Russians have Tatar, Jewish, Ukrainian, Georgian, Central Asian, or Armenian heritage due to increased mobility in the former Soviet Union—but there are few black people in the country. In 2009, BBC News reported that there were 10,000 Africans were living in Moscow, out of the city's population of over 10 million. But the question of appropriation or ethnicity isn't one that weighs heavy on the minds of Russian twerkers, who range in age and profession.
"There is a lot of young girls [who are] 20 to 25 years old, but sometimes there are also women around 40," Kovaleva says. "In my latest group there was most of those. I'm not sure why they come to twerk, maybe to surprise their husbands. There are women of different professions, mostly not even creative [occupations], but working in the office."
Kovaleva's comment on "surprising the husbands" taps into another issue that comes hand in hand with twerking: the male gaze. As empowering as Russian women find the dance form, the effect would be somewhat diminished if they're mainly doing it for the eyes of a man. "Is it possible to want to be an object of desire while being a subject of desire?" argues Fannie Sosa when I put this to her. "Is it possible for me to be [the] passive desired body when I put myself in the central space and I twerk? This moment I'm also a subject of desire, because it's based on choice."
Russian men also simply don't come to twerking classes—the space of a twerking class is completely free of men and the male gaze. And while body positivity is still new to a society still obsessed with slim bodies and conventional femininity (try counting the number of girls wearing stilettos in Moscow metro on the way to work and you'll understand), twerking is about shaking the fat bits on a body that Russian convention believes should remain skinny, toned, and otherwise invisible.
"The ones who practice everyday twerk [are the] best. Like in my dance, the main thing is precision and repetition, not the figure," Olga Kovaleva agrees. Everyone I spoke to emphasized that twerking is for everyone, regardless of shape, age, and even gender. Even this pocket of tolerance in today's relatively xenophobic Russian society is more than a little remarkable.
"There are girls of with all kinds of bodies, from very skinny to very curvy, and it doesn't matter," says Olesya Iva. "It's like the video where Nicki Minaj is twerking with models at Alexander Wang backstage. The main thing which matters is having good muscles in your bum and legs."