Fannie Sosa likes to wear a lot of different hats. Though, in some ways, they’re all the same hat worn in a different light. The Argentinian and Black-Brazilian artist is routinely described as a lot of different things —a dancer, an activist, a teacher, an academic. When I ask, via Skype —morning-fresh on Rio time and sprawled across a bed, wearing bright red lipstick and hair tied up high on her head —how she would introduce herself, she laughs. “That’s a really good question.” What she settles on, and what the myriad of different titles stem from, she tells me, is the notion of a curandera—a healer.
How she heals, however, is where Sosa sets herself apart from the traditional notions of healers—’traditional’ in the eyes of the modern Western world, at least. There are no vegetable roots and natural oils in her particular brand of healing; there is whole lot of ass-shaking. Answering to an absence of a consistent indigenous or diasporic tradition in her own upbringing—”sadly, like many children of the borderline,” she laments—Sosa quickly realized that’s what twerking meant to her: it was a way to heal, and a way to thrive. “That part, the healing part, is the crazy, secret reason why white supremacy appropriates from indigenous and diasporic practices that stem out of retaining humanity in the face of adversity—it’s because they have soul, they give life. These are the practices of people undergoing genocide who need to express themselves and talk to each other to survive.”
I sit down with Sosa somewhere between the rising sun in Rio and the setting one in Berlin to talk about the roots of twerking, healing notions of self-mastery and self-pleasure, the pervasive racism of the modern world, and feminism as self-motherhood.
Can you tell me a bit about your PhD?
Fannie Sosa: My PhD is called ‘Twerk and torque: new strategies for subjectivity decolonization in the web 2.0 times’. My academic headspace with writing has to do with my own experience, my own biography, my body, and my practices, as well as a way of resisting this “objective gaze” in academia, which is actually so objectifying. So it’s basically about how twerking is a way to ignite resistance—and pleasurable resistance. And also how that resistance can also work in virtual spaces, and how it does work. And how to navigate the great paradox that virtual spaces are.
One thing you’re especially becoming known for are these series of “twerkshops”—how do you describe them to people that have never heard of them before?
FS: Twerkshops are divided into two parts. The first one is more theoretic, but it’s not a theoretical class; it’s very intertwined with people’s experiences, and bodies, and feelings, and identities. I sit us down in a circle, and I ask the people that came to the twerkshop to speak up, to say why they’re there. Because it’s not just a dance class where we’re not supposed to have a voice and are just supposed to be a body. For me it’s several things: it’s a place where you need to speak up, it’s a place where you can look around and see other bodies with different experiences and how they are relating to twerking. It’s a place to get political too. It’s a brave space, as opposed to a safe space. I intertwine the history, the herstory, of twerking with what people bring to the twerkshops.
I’ll have a woman of color saying, ‘I’m here because my ass has always been more important than my face, and I want to get more into what that means and what the history of that is’. So then we speak about how race and racism were invented by the European colon, afro-féminismes, and how the backside of women of color is scrutinized by white supremacy, much like back in the days at the slave markets. And then we can talk about twerking coming from fertility rituals and how they come from dances that were there to count time, and how they were not only there for conception but for contraception—twerking and other dances were important in contraceptive practices.
And then you’ll have a man saying, ‘As a man I grew totally disconnected from my butt, I don’t know how to move it. I don’t know how to express myself with it. I feel that I might be called gay if I do it’, etc. There’s so much shame from that part of the body. And we’ll talk about how twerking was something that was done by everybody, it was not just a “woman’s knowledge”. It was something that was done by the whole tribe. In the queer context of the bounce culture in New Orleans, everybody does it—adult, child, trans and gender-fluid bodies, they all do it. And from what everyone brings experientially to the circle, I tend to weave these theoretical elements to it.
I think it will be surprising to some people to see twerking in the same sentence with feminism because, in white Western feminism and white Western capitalism, it is perceived as another way in which women are demeaning their bodies or oversexualizing them in the name of capitalism. How do you respond to that notion?
FS: I feel like the answer to that question is in the difference between the word sexualized and sexual. I think they mean very different things. Is twerking a sexualized thing? Yes. But by whom? By white supremacist media, which is inherently patriarchal. Is twerking a sexual thing? Yes. And is it sexual for whom, as in pleasurable for whom? For the bodies that are doing it. It is a liberatory practice. Sometimes the male gaze is in the eyes of the beholder. So for me, it’s a false equivalence to say twerking is hypersexualized and therefore you are not a feminist if you do it. The master’s tools…
It’s about agency.
FS: Yes. If something brings you pleasure, but it’s ‘wrong’ because it’s not feminist —I come from the belief that everything that brings us pleasure is feminist. Because in a world that wants women of color dead, in a world that wants me dead, and depressed, and repressed, and sick, and invisible, everything that brings me pleasure is an evolutionary act. Audre Lorde says it: self-care is a political act. Twerking is definitely about self-care. Camming is about self-care; it’s about making that money for you to make your art, or for you to do other things. And sex work can be about self-care in that sense too. So for me feminism is not about what you shouldn’t do—you should do whatever it takes to be yourself and to nurture yourself. Being your own mama: that’s what feminism is.
What are some of the origins of twerking?
FS: The herstory of twerking comes from the Neolithic sexual dances. There’s a lot of Neolithic murals and frescos and vases of women holding hands in circles. Which again—the circle comes back, it’s something that has to do with unheirarchial ways of learning and knowledges that have to do with witches, that have to do with spiritual healers, that were very often female bodies—women in the sense of how they felt themselves to be in relation to Mother Nature. And these Neolithic sexual dances were there to count time, because before we figured out the relationship between the stars and time, we knew about the relationship between the bodies of women and time. And so these tribes of women were living together, and all had their periods at the same time because periods sync up, and that’s how they counted time. “Another moon has come…”
These tribes would gather to dance, and it was a celebration but it was also a way of keeping our ass up, keeping your ass moving. We were nomads and semi-nomads back in the Neolithic times and we had a different relationship to nature. We had to keep our womb flexible and strong. We were not in a relationship of domination as we are now, but we were in adaptation; we were hunter-gatherers. These dances were there to give thanks to Mother Nature, and this group of dances is kind of a mother tree for a lot of different types of dances that today are indigenous or diasporic. For example, the Chaoui dance, the Malaya dance, these “belly dances” that we associate with Middle Eastern cultures, the Baikoko of Tanga, the Yoruba’s Gelede, the Hulas in the Polynesian islands, they come from that. Ultimately they come from the Neolithic sexual dances. It was a way to remember and a way to resist.
What do you mean when you say: “I twerk to remember, I twerk to resist.”
FS: It was, and still is, a way for indigenous and diasporic bodies to remember and to resist. To remember this mother tree of pleasurable dances that have to do with self-mastery and self-pleasure. Because it moves people, it heals people. It’s a great way to shift energy in your body. They would do it to get in touch with their womb, to get in touch with pleasure, get in touch with their joy and vitality.
Moving my ass, for me, has been a journey into remembering what I used to do when I was a kid. The mobility in kids’ hips is really crazy; they don’t have rigid hips. Kids are totally free in their hips, and we lose that because of sexual repression; men are told you’re not a man if you move like that, women are told you’re going to get raped if you move like that, or you’re a whore, or you’re easy. As in, if you move your hips like that you’re easily sellable and you need to be expensive—because we treat women like property. When I twerk, I remember moments when I was free in my hips as a child and it didn’t mean I was doing it for you, for your gaze—I was just doing it for myself because it was fun and it felt good. And it also means to remember my foremothers, to remember further than my own childhood—remembering all the women it took, shaking their asses, for me to be here.
Twerking is a way to resist a world that wants us dead, or repressed, or depressed, or crazy. And to resist it with a pleasure, because I feel we spend so much time resisting things with anger, which I think is a great tool, but can be quite tiring. I think we spend so much time resisting with sadness as well. And for me, I think it’s important to resist with joy, to find places of resistance where I’m not angry or sad but I’m just moving, where I’m happy.
I love hearing you say in some of your earlier work: “I’m still sexist. I’m still racist.” This coming from someone who, comparatively, is very conscious and informed and active in gender and race politics is refreshing because we all are.
How do you contend with the common perception of a woman’s reaction to oppression—of any oppressed person’s reaction—being pathologized and painted as hysterical.
FS: It’s such a widespread campaign of disinformation to turn the eyes from the perpetrator to the victim. The victim is screaming and people, instead of looking at the big picture and looking at themselves, will look at the victim and say, ‘you should shut up, being you is causing a scene, and you are stressing us out’. It’s part of rape culture. People that fall on that angry brown girl trope don’t want to look at themselves. **
Fannie Sosa is an activist, artist and curandera. You can see some of her twerk tutorials online here.
Header image: Fannie Sosa. Photo by Camille McOuat.