Ayana Lockett grew up the way most Black girls born in the 80’s did. There were lessons from her mother on acting like a lady. But there was also the influence of Hip Hop.
Born in 1980, by the time Ayana hit puberty and began to explore her own sensuality and sexuality, Uncle Luke was out making music. For those of us who missed this Black moment, just know his work is raunchy. And with it came a specific type of dancing: popping.
“We were pumping in. As a Luke dancer, all you had to do was ball up your fist, put them at your shoulders and push out. It didn’t necessarily require practice if you had rhythm.”
Ayana was a dancer in her youth. She was captain of her cheerleading squad, went to an Alvin Ailey dance camp, made the flag team in college and even choreographed some routines.
Still, when twerking came about as the next “it” dance craze, she realized there was a learning curve.
“This feels different from what we did. It was crazy. I had to relearn how to dance seductively. The movements are different. It doesn’t come as easy. You have to practice twerking. It requires practice.”
I had to relearn how to dance seductively.
Ayana can recall the exact moment when she recognized the difference in the dancing she did as a teenager and what was becoming increasingly popular in her thirties. She was working in a white salon, with a few Black employees as well, when one of the stylists attempted to show the group her skills.
“At the time, it might have even been a space where Black girls are not saying that they’re practicing. Because it’s like we’re supposed to know. This was the first time I experienced somebody who wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I’ve been practicing. Let me show you what I’ve got.’”
Watching this white girl, Ayana decided to attempt the dance as well, putting her hands on her knees. That was when she could sense the difference from twerking and popping. She’d never moved like that. It was her ego as a good dancer that made her want to learn what her body could do.
From there, Ayana started looking on social media to see how other people were doing the dance. She found a Russian girl.
“We all know that white people will monetize something real quick. This Russian girl had classes on how to build your butt. She doesn’t even speak English. But I always want to support my people if I can.”
So she looked some more.
I always want to support my people.
"Then I found CJ the Trainer. What I liked about him was that he had a body like mine. Everybody else was little. Everybody’s all perfect, cheerleader sizes and then here you go thunder thighs and butt for days. And he was moving that thing like I had never seen. And I was like, ‘Ooo got it.’ I had never seen anybody that big be able to move their body like that."
As CJ’s clientele grew, she saw that he was offering twerking classes in various cities. And eventually, he came to New York. Ayana signed up.
The lessons in self acceptance began long before she got there.
“I’m bottom heavy so I stopped wearing shorts when I was 12 or 13. If I wore shorts, it automatically looked provocative. I was taught, ‘Make sure you’re not trying to turn a man on when you’re walking.’ So , I was very cognizant of not trying to invite unwanted attention because of the way my body was, not because I was doing anything or wearing anything but just because of the way I was built. I felt like I needed to pay attention, watch my body and control it.”
Ayana attempted to exert this type of control when she bought the outfit for her class. She did buy some spandex shorts but also some fishnet tights to wear underneath them. Thankfully, when she was trying on potential outfits for her friends, they told her to put those away.
“They were like, ‘What?!’ I was going to wear fuckin fishnets because I felt like this is too much thigh movement. My friends had to tell me, ‘No, you are fine. You do not wear no fuckin stockings.’ They let me know, you’re going to look dumb.”
I felt like I needed to pay attention, watch my body and control it.
Ayana took their advice and when she stepped outside, wearing her spandex shorts, she was a little self conscious, wondering what the world would think of her body in this material.
“ I saw the world didn’t give a fuck.”
The feeling of going unnoticed was liberating.
“I can wear spandex shorts and go outside and be okay. It’s not that big of a deal. The class gave me permission for that which in turn gave me permission to shake and not feel funny. I’m not wearing a shaper. This is my body. And that was exciting. I felt a freedom that I hadn’t felt since I was 12… From age 12 to 37, not wearing shorts.”
In addition to the confidence it provided, the class was also an example of sisterhood for its attendees. Ayana said that while there were some expert-level twerkers in the mix, for the most part the women around her were beginners or intermediate level dancers who just wanted to know if their thangs were thangin’.
As someone who was raised to restrain her body, the celebration of its natural movement was the biggest takeaway from CJ’s twerking class.
“I was raised to put a body shaper on. ‘You got a big butt, girl. You ain’t got to be shaking everywhere, now. Make sure you’re not trying to turn a man on when you’re walking,’”Ayana says imitating the messages from her youth.
It was the words of another class attendee that helped Ayana understand that she didn’t need to carry those messages any longer.
“One dancer said ‘My ass moves like water.’ She was hype. And I had to clutch my pearls. I had never been given permission to just walk in my skin and let it move like water. I was almost taught to turn up my nose like I smell something nasty. I had to relinquish that feeling. That class taught me that you want that [movement]. It’s the best part.”
I felt a freedom that I hadn’t felt since I was 12
Exploring and expressing one’s sensuality and sexuality in this way is something Ayana suggests for every woman as it can be an exercise in strengthening our own sexual autonomy.
“In African American families we are not given permission to set boundaries. And that spills out into sexuality. Within my own sexuality, I don’t know if I’m the kind of person to tell you what I don’t want. I might just be quiet and hope you fuckin’ stop.”
For Ayana, twerking reaffirms the power we exhibit not only through the freedom of our movements but also who has access to our bodies as we perform them.
“I can dance however I want and you still can’t fuckin touch me. What happened?! Don’t disrespect me and you’ll be fine. And I think for the most part, men know that.”
In a lot of ways, this twerking class added an addendum to the lessons Ayana’s mother imparted about being a lady.
“I went into the class really following a trend and I didn’t know it was going to teach me about what it means to be a woman. Being a woman is more than knowing how to be a lady. That class taught me that. I didn’t realize I was missing that. Being a woman is very multifaceted and I think it’s important for us to have permission to be all those versions. I’m sophisticated. I’m hood. I’m sexual. I’m a little stush. I’m all of those things and I should be comfortable in being all of those pieces.