I was relieved when I heard a woman in her 30s say she had to look up the word “twerking.” When it came across Google news, I too had to look it up thinking I really was asleep at the switch. Having neither tweeted nor texted I thought I somehow missed twerking, but since this thirty-something missed it too, I don’t feel so out of touch.
It turns out that twerking is sexually suggestive dancing. It’s carrying Elvis lone gyrations to couples. You will be surprised to find just when dancing become sexualized. The following comes from Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present:
Of the waltz it must be said that it effected a radical change in manners; indeed, it marks a date in the history of sexuality. All dancing has this carnal component, but for centuries its full enjoyment was the privilege of the rural lower classes alone. City people deemed it their duty to civilization to limit themselves to figure dances, the entire company moving gracefully in set patterns. The steps were reduced to measured walking, with curtsying at intervals and touching hands only for turns or shifts of partners.
The waltz, originating in Germany, changed all that….What words and music did was to break up forever the elegant dance of groups into couples and turn the diffident romp into a whirl. The shock of seeing (and being) the sexes paired in a close clutch and moving in ¾ time at a dizzy speed was severe and prolonged. Resignation to the indecency (on the usual ground of ‘there is nothing to do; it has come to stay’) took over a decade. Byron wrote a short satirical poem ‘The Waltz” in 1812; Berlioz in 1830 was free to make the second movement of his Symphonie Fantastique a waltz (500).
Once dancing became uncoupled from groups and thought of as a couple’s activity, it was forever changed. Prior to this the only thing men and women did together was done in private and not talked about. Now there was a public doing between male and female. At first it was circumspect, governed by the social mores of the day, but as the days grew darker and seedier so did their dancing. And more and more what couples did in private made its way into what they did in public.
This is not to justify or accept the public debauchery. This is to say that although the 21st century likes to make up words – twerking, tweeting, texting, planking, Tebowing, etc. ad infinitum and ad nauseam – it isn’t really making anything new. However, by reducing debauched sexually explicit acts into convenient words – porn, twerking – or catchphrases – sex tape, friends with benefits – it is making them more readily acceptable, more easily digestible, i.e. easier to swallow without retching. I’m sure the same happened in Rome, Athens, Babylon, and Sodom.