Miley Cyrus has gotten a lot of attention for twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards in August — and not twerking on Saturday Night Live in October. As the Huffington Post points out, she is just the latest in a long line of celebrity twerkers, including Madonna, Rihanna, and Britney Spears.
What many people don't realize is just how far back twerking goes. Back before the VMAs, before the Oxford Dictionaries Online immortalized the word, before 33 high school students got suspended for their video, before the How to Twerk tutorial got more than 16 million hits on YouTube, before Jimmy Kimmel's twerking prank, before Big Freedia's Guinness World Record attempt and even before Bubba Sparxxx and the Ying Yang Twins popularized the word in the 90s.
No. We are going back to the forest primeval, to a bird that's been shaking what nature gave it since before mankind figured out what a seat cushion was for.
Twerk Well And Prosper
What's in a good twerk? The Oxford Dictionaries site has defined the verb form as "to dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance." Miley was more succinct. "It's a lot of booty action," she told Ryan Seacrest.
You don't have to tell that to the sage grouse.
During mating season, male sage grouse dance so hard they have to spend a significant portion of the following year building their body weight back up for the next mating season. For black grouse males, it just isn't a successful dance without major weight loss, a spike in blood parasites and a compromised immune system. The ones that lose the most body mass are better at defending their territories and experience greater success among the lady grouse.
But according to Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, there are even better twerking analogs than the sage grouse in the natural world, including the Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise ...
... and the Wire-tailed Manakin.
The manakin's mating dance "is the ultimate pre-copulatory display," says Rick, who was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2009. "The female has a straight-on rear view of this display."
Take a look for yourself. The male manakin finds a female — any female — to display to. He proceeds to dance in a sexually provocative manner that involves thrusting tail movements and a low, squatting stance (sound familiar?). But the manakin goes one step further — swishing a bouquet of wiry feathers across the female's face as he shimmies back and forth along the branch.
"This," Rick says, "is as close as possible in nature to a sexual fetish."
Birds of a Feather Twerk Together
As it turns out, Rick has been thinking a lot lately about birds who do twerk-like dance moves, though he wouldn't call it that. He has studied the manakin — and other birds — for years, and he also happens to be writing a book about the evolution of beauty.
The cool thing is: The manakin's twerk-like mating strut has impacted how the birds have evolved, Rick says. The manakin's dance move came along before its characteristic wiry feathers — those ones that the male rubs over the female's face as he booty-shakes — ever developed.
The female manakin who participates in the display "also has wires coming out of her tail, which she never uses," says Rick. "So, what this is, is a sort of evolved decadence. The female, in selecting for what she likes in terms of fetishistic tactile stimulation across the face...as a result she transforms her own body."
Over the course of time, the dance shaped the bird's plumage.
Twerks For Us
While selection for well-performed dance moves can breed extreme plumage among birds, twerking would have no such consequences among humans. As Rick points out, "There's no indication that twerking is associated with fitness. People were getting plenty of mates before they started twerking."
With some birds, if they don't dance it well, they won't reproduce at all. "Like a dance move, it's an aesthetic process," he says. "And that extreme aesthetic expression requires lots of failure. If everybody did it the same, it wouldn't evolve to any extraordinary extent. Which is similar to saying that most opera and most poems suck, and the reason they do is that it's really hard to achieve it well, and when you do achieve it well, it can be good in an amazing and enduring kind of way."
So, birds are good at twerking. Really good at it. Bees are, too — they talk to each other by wagging their rears. Heck, even educated spiders can do it (It helps to have extra legs and a butt flap that unfolds into a shining, iridescent display at dancing time).
And now, humans do it. Judging from online videos, lots of people do it. For fun. For profit. And, well, just because they can.
"Twerking is about the butt, and the butt is really a human autapomorphy," says Rick. "It's a unique structure that other animals lack."
What is The Protojournalist? New-school storytelling, old-school reporting. @NPRtpj