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Twerking and democracy have more in common than you think

Dean Kalimniou on the Hellenic origins of the twerk

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10 March 2017

"What?", the incensed Ελληναρού spluttered, her heaving chest encased in a tight-fitting Nikos Kazantzakis 'I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free' souvenir T-shirt purchased in Santorini, her Sue Sensi-bedecked arms jangling wildly with various Ottoman- inspired charms. "I'm telling you we gave the world democracy and you're telling me that in the same way we gave the world democracy, we also gave them twerking? Are you serious? There is nothing worse than a self-hating Greek."

There actually is, and that is an uncontrolled gesticulator with the propensity to make grandiose, sweeping hand gestures that result in the toppling of their frappe and the latitudinal dispersal of its contents. I abjure the frappe, considering it a western perversion (even though it is not; it was invented at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair in 1957 by a Nescafe representative named Dimitris Vakondios), so the Ελληναρού, σβαρνήsied (her word, not mine) her own frappe and my βαρύγλυκο across the table, mingling it into a pleasing, viscous mélange of the old, the new, the traditional and the invented.

"And anyway," she continued, flecks of saliva foaming at the corners of her deep-red painted lips ("Do you like this colour," she'd asked. "It's called 'Vixen'.") as I proceeded to mop up the contents of her wrath. "Miley Cyrus invented the twerk. And she is no way near to being Greek. If anything, her name sounds Persian and everyone knows that the Persians are the ancient enemy of the Greeks. Who invented democracy? Abraham Lincoln? No, it was Democritus. But like everyone else, you've been taught to deny your own heritage by the Judeo-Christians who destroyed the pure Greek civilisation. If we are going to survive as a people, we need to regain the glory of the ancient Greeks."

Pausing, she reached into her burgundy Callista leather handbag, purchased last summer in Mykonos, and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. Now, in the first fabulous years of our friendship, the Ελληναρού was a committed non-smoker. However, her first trip to the Greek islands and her rapid conversion to neo-Hellenism has led her to espouse the constant quoting of Hatzigiannis lyrics (no doubt to fumigate the mind) and the lighting of cigarettes (to fumigate the soul) as rites intrinsic to the preservation of the purity of the modern Hellene from the ersatz variety. She took a deep drag and sighed with exasperation. Είχε ντέρτια η κοπέλα.

I felt it would be impolite to refute my interlocutor's claim as to the origins of democracy. After all, had not sundry members of the Greek Democritus League over the years also strenuously maintained to me that said club was named thus because Democritus invented democracy? (He didn't. He, along with his teacher Leucippus, formulated the atomic theory of the universe.) And in any event, in English-speaking liberal democracies, whose political system has evolved slowly but surely from the witenagemots and local assemblies of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking rulers, forged through feudalism, the Magna Carta, Oliver Cromwell's rebellion and the Glorious Revolution, rather than from any direct inspiration from an Athenian polis democracy that did not even last a century, it seems trite and hyperbolic to become riled up about the self-evident. (We Antipodeans are complaisant like that. No insecurities about democracy here. More than happy to export it to the Middle East and the Maghreb and let everyone share the love.)

Twerking, though, is quite another thing entirely. For one, it is an activity around which I harbour surprisingly strong emotions. I cannot sit idly by and allow anyone, Ελληναρού or no, to ascribe its invention to the unspeakable, though evidently not unshakeable, Miley Cyrus. For Miley did not invent the twerk, neither did JLo, Shakira, Rihanna nor even the limber Fergie, and anyone who makes such spurious claims cannot count themselves among the Philhellenes. While it has been associated with West African traditional dances, specifically a style known as the 'Mapouka', and most likely came to the American continent through the transplantation of those dances, in actual fact, the twerk has its origins in the ancient Hellenic homeland in which, my Ελληναρού friend feels, salvation lies.

According to some, the twerk has its origins in the kordax, a provocative, licentious, and often obscene mask dance of ancient Greek comedy, with similar moves as twerking. In his play The Clouds, for instance, the master comedian Aristophanes complains that other playwrights of his time try to hide the feebleness of their plays by bringing an old woman onto the stage to dance the kordax, much as B-grade film directors of the '60s and '70s filled the plot holes in their sword and sandal epics with equally suggestive exotic dancers. Aristophanes, on the other hand, notes with pride that his patrons will not find such gimmicks in his plays. Rather than being hyptonised by the rhythmic undulations of buttocks, he expects his audience to actually pay attention to his finely-crafted instances of anal humour. Phat chance.

Not only did the ancient Greeks invent twerking but, my angry at the world Ελληναρού was incredulous to learn, they also had twerking competitions, which makes sense when one considers what a competitive bunch the ancient Greeks actually were. In his Letters of Courtesans, second century AD author Alciphron relates how one such twerking contest took place and precisely in which spirit connoisseurs were supposed to savour the game:
"But the thing that gave us the greatest pleasure, anyhow, was a serious rivalry that arose between Thryallis and Myrrhina in the matter of buttocks − as to which could display the lovelier, softer pair. And first Myrrhina unfastened her girdle (her shift was silk), and began to shake her loins (visible through her shift), which quivered like junkets, [which is the direct ancestor of the pertinent to the art of twerking phase 'junk in one's trunk'] while she cocked her eye back at the wagglings of her buttocks. And so gently, as if she were in the act, she sighed a bit, that, by Aphrodite, I was thunderstruck.

Thryallis, nevertheless, did not give up; on the contrary she outdid Myrrhina in wantonness. 'I certainly am not going to compete behind a curtain,' said she, 'nor with any affectation of coyness, but as if I were in a wrestling match; for the competition brooks no subterfuge.' So she put off her shift and, puckering her croup a little, she said, 'There now, look at the colour, how youthful, Myrrhina, how pure, how free from blemish; see these rosy hips, how they merge into the thighs, how there's neither too much plumpness nor any thinness, and the dimples at the tips. [Again the direct ancestor of the Missy Elliot Work It lyrics: "See my hips and my tips, don't ya/ See my ass and my lips, don't ya."] But, by Zeus, they don't quiver,' said she with a sly smile, 'like Myrrhina's'.

And then she made her buttocks vibrate so fast, swaying then-whole bulk above the loins this way and that with such a rippling motion, that we all applauded and declared that the victory was Thryallis'."

A great and resounding silence ensued after I expounded the above, especially upon the revelation that even the seemingly innocuous word orchestra is sexually charged, coming from the world ὀρχοῦμαι, meaning to dance, but literally, to swing one's genitals, presumably while dancing. The Ελληναρού's painstakingly plucked eyebrows were furrowed, her cigarette, still in one hand, had burned to ashes, while with the other hand, she nervously examined her split ends. All of a sudden, all that she had been taught to think of as imposed, decadent, oriental and inimical to the identity of a cool, rational and noble ancient Greek had been found to emanate from the source of her pantheon.

Fearing that I had committed a crime tantamount to revealing to children that Santa Claus is not real, I haltingly went on to state that some pundits consider that the kordax can be compared with the modern tsifteteli. It was at this point that those vixen lips parted into a dazzling smile. Flicking her hair back, she twittered happily, "I knew the tsifteteli wasn't Turkish. Thank God! No more guilt trips! Just wait until I tell the parea at Kinisi ... "

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