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What is the Origin of Twerking?

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From the Charleston to the Twist to the Hustle, dance fads have always served to define their decade—though not without raising a few eyebrows from older generations. In fact, the disapproval of popular dance fads often seems as quintessentially American as the dances themselves. Such is the case with one of the most scandalous dance crazes to date, one that’s quickly becoming the definitive dance of our decade: twerking. 

Let’s get this out of the way. To twerk, essentially, is to shake one’s butt.  So yes, obviously, it’s not something to pull out in front of your grandparents at your next family reunion. A tongue-in-cheek definition by Urban Dictionary lists twerking as “a series of movements made by females of the humanoid variety as an expression of contempt for their fathers.” While it’s not exactly family friendly, claims that twerking originated in American strip clubs are sketchy at best. Rather, the dance’s strongest ties lie in Africa.

The movements involved in twerking show similarities to several traditional West African dances, most notably mapouka, hailing from the Cote d’Ivoire. Known colloquially as “la dance du fessier,” or “dance of the behind,” mapouka is said to exist in two forms: A tamer, more traditional dance performed ceremonially, and the newer, more scandalous version popular with young Ivoirians.

The more modern version—and the one most closely related to twerking—is considered obscene and suggestive by some, and its traditional roots haven’t immunized it against controversy. In fact, the public performance of modern mapouka by groups such as Les Tueuses (The Killers), was outlawed in the 1980s; the Ivoirian government cited lewdness as the reason for the ban. After that government was toppled by a military coup around 2000, mapouka performances were rendered legal once again. However, despite (or possibly due to) its prohibition, the infectious dance style had already spread throughout coastal West Africa and even taken up roots in the U.S. And so, in 1993, it twerked toward Bethlehem—err, New Orleans—to be born. 

In the early 90s, New Orleans was home “bounce” music, a form of hip hop that relied heavily on call-and-response chanting. A popular artist at the time, DJ Jubilee, recorded a song called “Do the Jubilee All.” When the accompanying video featured young people furiously shaking their fessiers alongside the lyrics “twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk”—the word “twerk” a combination of the words twist and jerk—the new dance craze had arrived with a new name.

Since that fateful moment, twerking has been on the rise, steadily picking up speed in the U.S. with each passing year. Twerking popularity met new highs with the 2012 release of Diplo’s “Express Yourself.” The music video for Diplo’s hit song popularized a newer, death-defying (okay, not really) version of twerking: the “wall twerk,” wherein the twerker inverts themselves against a wall in an assisted handstand, assumes the twerking position, and fires away.  Stop before you get dizzy, and have a wet rag handy to wipe the footprints off the wall when you’re done.

In its thirty-something-year span, the dance has been far from devoid of controversy. Former child star Miley Cyrus has notoriously used her twerking skills to shed her squeaky clean Disney image. Earlier this year, 33 San Diego high school students were suspended for reportedly using school equipment to film a video in which the students twerked for the camera. Their dance moves earned them a minimum of five days suspension for violating the school’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. While it sounds a little like Footloose, there’s no doubt the sexually-charged dance move is slightly less appropriate for school than good old rock ‘n’ roll.

But it’s a scandalous idea that becomes less scandalous when considering the controversy that followed Elvis’s gyrations or even Chubby Checker’s legendary Twist, both movements once condemned for their vulgarity. Those interested in trying out the dance themselves can follow a non-intimidating, step-by-step tutorial here. The less courageous can entertain themselves by replacing the word “work” with “twerk” in popular idioms (“twerking hard, or hardly twerking?”).

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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