There are many forms of dance that one expresses themselves in and every culture expresses and represents themselves with their own dance style. Many African cultures move their butt when dancing as a form of their expression and they move that part of the body as if it were disconnected from the rest of the body, shaking and gyrating the butt all around. In hip hop culture rap videos contain women who shake their butt in the very same manner, shaking and gyrating their butts in and out of camera shot and all over the male rappers crotch areas and faces. But these two dance cultures are meant for two different reactions from the audience, and that is where they differentiate. But how does one differentiate two cultures of dance that use the same body part, which in this case is the butt, for movement? What is the difference between the expression and movement of the butt as a form of dance and the expression and movement of the butt as a form of sex, temptation and exploitation?
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is an acclaimed African American choreographer, well known for creating strong and diverse images of black women on stage (1). One of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s dance works that she created for her company Urban Bush Women is called Batty Moves. In this particular piece that Jawole Willa Jo Zollar choreographed, all of the African American women face upstage for the entirety of the dance piece with their butt’s to the audience. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s piece Batty Moves offers many layers of interpretation and critique, particularly of how bodies are radicalized and sexualized(2). In Batty Moves the butt is used and moved for the joy and the love of dancing. It is the celebration of the black female body and in this piece the dance moves are presented in a way where the audience cannot get away from the butt and the dancers movements of the butt without having to look away. I believe Jawole Willa Jo Zollar did this on purpose. I believe that she choreographed Batty Moves to focus on the black female butt, the part of the body that black females have so often been reduced to. Saartjie Baartman was stereotyped as a hypersexual female of color because of the large size of her butt and since then black women have still been hyper sexualized because of this body part. In Batty Moves Zollar shows just how beautiful the butt can look on and how the butt should be a celebration through movement as opposed to a secret to society and a taboo.
The way that the dancers in Batty Moves move their butt is extremely difficult and athletic, but the fact that it is the butt that is being maneuvered throughout the piece, critics want to say it is sexual. But this dance piece is so much more than sexual and rhythmic. In ballet technique a dancer must be flexible and strong, athletic and graceful and when the audience watches ballet the reaction and feedback is always along the lines of beautiful and soft and selfless. But these are all the same qualities a dancer must have when manipulating the butt as the dancers do in Zollar’s Batty Moves. To be able to move the butt in a selfless manner one must have flexibility of the back and be strong and athletic to keep up the stamina and the rhythm of the movement. The piece is imbued with deep historical, cultural and political commentaries that are often elided in popular readings(3). This dance is not just booty shaking, it is movement that shows a joy of a body part with a specific technique that Jawole Willa Jo Zollar shows and perfects in her dance piece.
“From the start of the scientific revolution, scientists viewed the earth or nature as female, a territory to be explored, exploited and controlled. Newly discovered lands were personified as female, and it seems unsurprising that the women of these nations become the locus of scientific inquiry. Identifying foreign lands as female helped to neutralize their rape and exploitation, but the appearance on the scene of “wild women” raised troubling questions about the status of European women. Hence it also became important to differenciate the “savage” land/women from the civilized female of Europe.”(4)
The butt was a part of the body that Europeans decided was private, sexual and secretive and scientists decided that the larger the butt the more sexual the women. The butt became this undiscovered land that had to be explored, exploited and controlled and Saartjie Baartman was the perfect female “specimen” to study to prove this theory. In 1810 Saartjie Baartman was placed on public display to expose her enlarged buttocks. Her protruding butt was what Saartjie Baartman was reduced to and what controlled her status in Europe. Another part of her body that was placed on display and examined after her death was her protruding genitalia and the scientist Cuvier was the one to examine her corpse. Hence forward, Cuvier announced how “abnormal” Saartjie Baartman’s genitalia and buttocks were and any women with such enlarged genitalia and buttocks was a highly sexual women.
These theories that were given to Saartjie Baartman and all of the women of her race in early 1800s are theories that would haunt and still do haunt African American women to this day. But women such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar are trying to stop this stereotype of Black women and their butt and the reduction that black women have succumbed to. Zollar’s dancer’s movements of the waist, back and butt are not just movements of the waist, back and butt; they are choreographed dance techniques that only a handful of women can do correctly. Zollar’s purpose was to release the big butt and release any pressure created from having a big butt. Zollar put the protruding butt to good use in dance, allowing an audience to admire the butt as beautiful as opposed to despising and ridiculing it as the Europeans once did to Saartjie Baartman.
Here, the struggle was to present positive images of the black life in order to combat the dangerous negative images in mainstream culture, but these attempts remained trapped within the same logic of binaries that they sought to combat, and were further problematic because they were propelled by a homogenizing impulse, flattening the differences within the black communities(5). But through the movement in Batty Moves, these motives were challenged, and the women who dance in Batty Moves are represented as human beings that are much more than their body parts. Zollar made sure that her choreography represented the Black women as a strong female in control of her body and in control of how other humans viewed her body and most importantly, in control of her butt.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s point was to make the butt beautiful and powerful through dance, but there are other artists and art forms that challenge Zollar’s attempt at this motive. Rap artists and hip hop music make sure to degrade women (specifically Black) through her butt using it as a tool for sexual pleasure and sexual exposure. Rappers make it a point in their lyrics to inform the black female that if she does not shake her butt for the black male than she will be a failure. A perfect example of this sexual abuse through lyrics in hip hop music is Ludacris’s song P-Poppin. Ludacris raps lyrics such as, “Now pop that coochie you know the procedure if you want this cash gotta make that ass shake like a seizure (6).”
In this small section of Ludacris’s song P-poppin, with just this small fraction of some of his lyrics in his song, you can see just how the hip hop industry views “their” women and how they think women should act. Ludacris says, now pop that coochie (otherwise known as a vagina) you know the procedure. So Ludacris is rapping to women that they should know how to maneuver their private parts in a way that is pleasing to a male and that this is a “dance” move that every girl should be familiar with because that is how you gain male attention. Ludacris then says, you want this cash gotta make that ass shake like a seizure, which in other words means, attention females, if you want to make good money than you need to shake your butt in a sexual manner that will get men off. This hip hop way of thinking is affecting black women to use their butt through dance in the complete opposite way that Zollar wanted black women to use their butt’s through dance. Ludacris, and many other male rappers, are telling women to use their butt and pelvis area as sexual exploitation areas and therefore is creating these black women to lose control of the use of their butt and placing the control of their butt in the hands of black men. Black women are being told to act like strippers to be successful.
Many of these rappers who tell women to shake their butt degradingly for men in their lyrics get their inspirations from strip clubs themselves. This then only perpetuates the cycle of young girls wanting to be strippers in the hopes that they may one day be asked to be a video vixen for a famous artist. This would then explain the vulgarity of the dancing that you see in rap videos that are so conveniently played on live TV where other black men and black women can see. Ludacris spoke out to try and explain why hip hop artists go to strip clubs, and his explanation concluded in this, “What people don’t really understand about the strip clubs in Atlanta is that it’s more of a club atmosphere than it is just going to see naked ladies. It’s a place where so many music industry people come together and make a lot of business moves (7).”
So, male rappers go to strip clubs, which are more like clubs than anything, to make major business moves. What Ludacris does not explain is that if the strip club is in fact basically a club than why not just go to a club? Why must a huge public figure such as Ludacris go to a strip club where there are naked ladies being reduced to their butts “dancing” for male attention? Why is there a need for female exploitation to make hip hop industry business moves? Black women see that famous rap artists such as Ludacris are going to strip clubs to make business moves and then feel propelled to become strippers to get a piece of this commercial world action even if it means having to shake their butt and gyrate their pelvis area. The fact that women feel that they must reduce themselves to their butt when shaking it in rap videos proves that it is not dance and proves that the hip hop industry is a male dominated industry that take control of how men view the female body. If these women in these rap videos felt in control of their butts in the hip hop industry than they wouldn’t have to shake it in cameras.
Like hip hop videos, the “hotness” of which is often measured by the amount of female flesh (predominantly black) and provocation offered- thus heavy rotation and an artist’s breakout- the number of spins at a club and the dancers’ responses are predictors of marketability (8). But the dancers are not aware of the power that they hold in their hands for the success of a hip hop song. If a song is good, regardless of the lyrics it contains and the video footage it will probably contain, female strippers and women in general are going to dance to it.
So in the hip hop industry we have men who predict the hit of a song based on the female body and whether or not that body wants to move to it, and then saying that females did dance to this song in particular the rap artist will go and produce this song which will likely have degrading lyrics towards women and will also have degrading images of women in their videos. The point is, that in the end, the hip hop artist gets his money for his song and the dancing female will get her fifteen minutes of fame and the reputation of black women will get an even worsened reputation for their butt. Women such as Saartjie Baartman were forced to exploit their body for the public which caused a terrible rippling effect on how Europeans viewed the black female body proclaiming it hypersexual. But now we have women who are willingly exploiting their body for the public causing the stereotype of the black female body being hyper sexualized to stick.
An example of women who willingly exploit their butt and pelvis through dance for the public is all the women in Nelly’s video Tip Drill. In this video you have half naked and fully naked women shaking their butts and pelvis all over the camera, rappers and other women. Nelly proved in his video Tip Drill how severely the hip hop industry exploits the female body (predominantly black) and he proves that the African American male in the hip hop industry needs a half-naked women shaking her butt at his side to prove his “macho” and “manliness.”
When you have black males who become famous for rapping degrading lyrics toward black women and always have half-naked black women shaking their butts at their sides, then you will get young black men striving to be this “macho” man who degrades women for pleasure and young black women who exploit their own bodies and butts to receive attention. It is a terrible rippling effect that is harming the young black generation and is one of the key problems that affect how the black butt is viewed and how the black women uses her butt through dance.
Black women throughout history have been exploited, hyper sexualized and stereotyped for the differences in their body type. The Black butt was always a black butt and never just a butt, so moving it through dance was and still is a scandal. People like Jawole Willa Jo Zollar try to break the power society holds over the black butt through dance, and succeeded. But then we have hip hop artists such as Ludacris, Nelly and many more who just confirm through “dance” that the black butt is solely for the purpose of sexual pleasure and exploitation. The way that hip hop artists have women shaking their butts in videos is not dance. It is hinting sex for male entertainment. What Jawole Willa Jo Zollar did was dance. She used and manipulated the butt through dance to give the black women control over the butt. When the black women moves her butt with complete consciousness and control it becomes dance.
1 Ananya Chatterjea, Subversive Dancing: The Interventions in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Batty Moves, 451
2 Ananya Chatterjea, Subversive Dancing: The Interventions in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Batty Moves, 453
3 Ananya Chatterjea, Subversive Dancing: The Interventions in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Batty Moves, 454
4 Anne Fausto-Sterling, “Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ women in Europe, 1815-1817,” in Deviant Bodies, ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacquelyn Urla (Bloomington: Indiana University Press , 1995) 22.
5 Ananya Chatterjea, Subversive Dancing: The Interventions in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Batty Moves, 458
6 T.Denean Sharpley-Whitening, “Pimps Up Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s hold on Young Black Women,” New York University 2007, p. 115
7 T. Denean Sharpley-Whitening, “Pimps Up Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s hold on Young Black Women,” New York University 2007, p. 115
8 T. Denean Sharpley-Whitening, “Pimps Up Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s hold on Young Black Women,” New York University 2007, p. 119