Is Twerking Fated To Be More Than Just A Dance Fad?

A chart-based look at what influences the course of dance crazes.

By Johannah King-Slutzky

Things I love about this Miley Cyrus "scandal": thoughtful examinations of pop culture! An excuse to explain twerking to my parents. Butts on business newspapers. ("Butts On Business" is my forthcoming Beastie Boys inspired mixtape, stay tuned.) More coverage of bounce music. Things I don't love about that scandal: it is so, so racist. But hey, it's the gift that keeps on giving, so I decided to take a look at how twerking measures up to some other historical dance crazes.

Big Freedia is the queen of bounce, a musical genre hailing from New Orleans that's been around for over two decades.

So, first things first. What are some recent dance crazes? After much deliberation I decided on "twerk," "dougie," Harlem shake," and "Gangnam style," then plugged those terms into Google trends to see how they measured up.

As you can see, "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake" are far outpacing "Twerk," even though Gangnam style is a year old and Harlem Shake and Twerk both technically have multi-decade trajectories. Outside a couple blips in 2011, doing the dougie doesn't even figure. Regionally, twerking is primarily a North American phenomenon (though it has some Australian, South African, and Nigerian presence), and Gangnam Style, though clearly a fad in the Americas, is currently most popular in Asia (though not in Korea-- it's apparently experiencing the greatest longevity in the Philippines).

Okay, makes sense. And I bet twerking will catch on internationally soon enough. "How to twerk" is, after all, a top related search in Google.

So then I thought I'd look at why these dances became popular. There's a lot of cultural work at play, here-- Korean diaspora, hip hop and cultural appropriation, VMA, NPR, SNL. But the most obvious precipitator is celebrity. Norrowing in on Gangnam Style and Twerking specifically, I typed into Google Trends "Psy," "Miley Cyrus," "Gangnam Style," and "twerk."

Well, this is a surprise. Even though "Gangnam Style" was once more googleable than "twerk," searches for Miley Cyrus far outpace searches for Psy. Why would that be? For one thing, "Gangnam Style" doubles as a dance and the title of a music video, whereas Miley's twerking-related video had no such SEO luck. You just have more immediate reasons to google "Gangnam Style" than twerking.

I also checked, and "twerk" and "twerking" have almost identical trajectories, which I assume means that the two terms are splitting the Google-vote. Some people type "twerking" into Google; a slightly higher percentage query for "twerk." So let's just imagine that twerking curve doubled. Boolean operators don't seem to function in Google trends or else I'd just've typed "twerk*" into my search to get the full "twerk"/"twerking" combo. Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus's publicist is killing it.

Time to get more ambitious. What's fueling all the Miley/twerking blog coverage? Well, I'm interested in the blog coverage of Miley's dance routine because I like butts, but more seriously, it's also a crystallization of racism and (allegedly) sexism. Unfortunately, Google trends does not agree with me.

There is no relationship between searches for "twerking," "racism," "sexism," or "cultural appropriation." (The last term was mostly in there for LOLs. Who googles "cultural appropriation"?) I decided to try a different tack.

Here's a slightly different question: what does the life cycle of a dance craze even look like? For this, I turned to Google Ngrams. First, a selection of dance trends across time. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) The entrants: "do the hustle," "do the robot," "do the macarena," and "do the twist." I also included "twerking" for safe measure, even though it doesn't come in a dance-specific "do the ____" form.

Weirdly, "twerk" shows up in books as early as 1906, but since "twerking" doesn't show up in our lexicon until the nineties I'm going to spuriously chalk that up to a fluke of contraction (as in "to work," "twerk"). It is a mystery that may never be solved. As a matter of fact, it is suspected that "to twerk" does indeed originate in the portmanteau of "to twirl" and "to jerk."

"Twerk" anomaly aside, what can we learn from this chart? For one thing, the twist has been the most sustainable "fad dance" of all my entries. You can even see it crest a second time in the 2000s, thanks to postmodernism's nostalgia habit. We can also see that all dance crazes appear to be cyclical. Smaller trends, like "doing the robot" and "doing the macarena" have decade long lifecycles, whereas the twist appears to live and die in periods of 20s. A non-fad like the waltz, in contrast, isn't cyclical at all: the waltz has been written about in a steady incline from 1798 to 1947 before returning to a steady classic-but-boring level from the 1970s onward.

The take-home message: dance crazes come and go, but nostalgia's forever. That, and the long term fate of "twerking" will probably be more legible once it hits the mainstream ten year mark.

Follow Johannah on Twitter @jjjjjjjjohannah


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