This week, Miley Cyrus set the internet on fire with her provocative performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, in which she undulates around stage in a flesh-colored bikini, tongue wagging, in an apparent attempt to make a dozen life-size teddy bears blush to death as she impregnates herself with a foam finger. Skip to 3:50 in the video to see the pop star pretending her backside is an eraser, and furiously using it to remove Robin Thicke’s crotch, like a mistake on a multiple choice test. (At least that’s what it looked like to me).
This rhythmic form of dancing that involves shaking, gyrating, or simply jiggling one’s buttocks is known as twerking, and it’s sweeping the nation. Twerking can be done on a dance floor, upside down against a wall, or alone in one’s room before uploading to YouTube to see if a video of a woman doing nothing except shaking her tushy on camera can reach one million hits (spoiler alert: yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes). It is gaining popularity among young people as quickly as it is horrifying their parents.
Like many humble viewers, I watched Ms. Cyrus’ cringingly dirty dancing and wondered: Why, sweet Miley? Certainly the former child star is eager to shed her Disney persona, and knew the racy stunt would win her plenty of media attention, and I can’t fault her for that. But the act of twerking also has a primitive, biological component, one that Miley (and all humans) may be hard-wired for.
Dancing is an ancient human behavior, and seems to be innate. Even babies do it. And while we use it for bonding and displays of dexterity, perhaps no use is more important than mating. Studies have shown women can ascertain a man’s health and confidence by how well he dances, and have more orgasms with men they find to be better dancers. And men find women to be better dancers during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. Dancing gives us X-ray vision into the reproductive quality of potential mates.
But twerking is unique, and its origin lies even further in our evolutionary past. While its Wikipedia page claims this dance craze began in 1993, the technique has actually been around for several million years, under a different name: Mammalian lordosis. If you own a dog or cat, you may have observed lordosis behavior. Female mammals arch their spine inward and raise their backsides toward male suitors as part of the mating ritual when they are ‘in heat.’ Seen in cats, mice, and yes, humans, it is both an invitation to mate and a tool to aid in copulation, elevating the hips to allow for intercourse. While doggies get credit for the style, pre-missionary humans have been doing it just as long. And lordosis behavior isn’t simply confined to the bedroom. Anthropologist Helen Fisher speculates that high heeled shoes, which force women to arch their backs and stick out their buttocks, may be “sexy” to men because of their preference for lordosis behavior displays.
But there’s more. To watch twerking in action, one can’t help but wonder if the real culprit might be the well-documented male preference for a low waist-to-hip ratio in prospective mates. Low “WHR” in women—essentially, the skinny waist, wide-hipped, “hour glass” figure—is the classic shape consistently rated highest by men in many cross-cultural studies. Women with ideal waist-to-hip ratios are healthier, more fertile, and usually aren’t pregnant already, all traits that our male ancestors evolved to appreciate, if only subconsciously. Done properly, twerking involves keeping the waist in a static position, then gyrating the hips and buttocks around in a big circular motion, creating the illusion of a skinny waist and wider hips and posterior. When it comes to presenting a good waist-to-hip ratio, twerking is actually quite ingenious.
So why hasn’t twerking caught on with male dancers? Because women don’t like hourglass figures in men. Male fitness is displayed by a low waist-to-chest ratio…the classic “V-shaped” torso that indicates a strong upper body, broad shoulders, and a hulking chest. If guys want a dance that drives women wild, they should invent a move that makes our chests look broader. Call it Schwarzenerking.
So while many are rushing to Facebook to condemn the trashiness of the performance, I, for one, applaud Miley Cyrus, as well as the other members of the so-called Twerk Team. Whether you call it twerking, grinding, or doing the New Jersey Turnpike, these clever ladies have not only perfected, but improved upon a mating call that has been around for millions of years. Just as we did with eating and hunting and every other animal behavior, humans have turned the primal lordosis display into its very own art form. Sure, Miley may have made some viewers uncomfortable. But I didn’t see that handsome mammal singing “Blurred Lines” getting too upset about it.