“Look Mommy! I shake my butt,” my daughter said when I poked my head into the family room where she watched The Little Mermaid for the umpteenth time. While the Caribbean caricature sang, she braced herself on the edge of the television stand and shook her hips like a dryer on its last legs. It was a proud moment; she get it from her mama.
Hours before, I’d been watching the “Drunk in Love” video and navigating the thin line between desire and envy as Beyonce emerged from the waves like a Mami Wata priestess. Then the beat dropped and, “Wop! Wop!” My cousin and I narrated the syncopation of our hips as we mimicked Beyonce’s “classy" twerk. We were so loud that my daughter came around the corner to ask, “Mommy, why you shake you butt?” It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question.
In my struggle with depression, I count stressors like lifelong dieters count calories. My latest formula for keeping the weight off is a morning mixture of protein and movement, which means that I cook my eggs to some orgy of drum and bass blasting on my ancient stereo system. Freedom finds me with my hands in the air, knees bent, hips winding. This has been my favorite dance since Heck was a pup, as the old folks say, but to my daughter it just looks like butt shaking. She may be cut from a different cloth.
Music moves her to sway like a willow tree in a windstorm, as if her big afro is too heavy for her frame. She dances like a stoner at Woodstock, as if she is flying while standing still. She is adorable and happy, but I can’t help hoping that one day she’ll give a little attention to the beat. I feel like my parents, praying for the day her hips will marry the bass drum so that she will know a love like ours. This is just a phase, I tell myself while my tree sways to Lil’ Mama’s “Lipgloss.”
Some parents would call me lucky. At least she won’t end up on “the internets” dancing like she knows something. In the age of WorldStar the last thing our girls need is another reason to be disrespected. After all, it’s always our fault. Every insult, assault, or micro-aggression is about the way we present ourselves. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to believe? Shouldn’t I raise my daughter to behave as if her name has two syllables? Shouldn’t I come across videos of Black girls enjoying themselves and repost them with the caption “SMDH (shaking my damn head)”? Now that I’m a mother, shouldn’t I dust off my undergraduate paper comparing video dancers to Sara Baartman? The paper was a ten page exercise in missing the point that the deviance of exploitation is about the compensation, not the work. I forgive myself for writing that paper.
I also forgive myself for running from the margin to the center of the high school dance floor when the first notes to Master P’s “Bounce Dat Ass” played over the loud speakers. Hands on knees, our (fake) Coach belts cinched the waists of jeans that weren’t made for us as we took over the event that wasn’t planned for us. For three minutes, it didn’t matter that four percent of the student population made up eighty percent of the detention referrals because the kids whose hips moved like Ferris wheels couldn’t touch us. Nobody could—in theory.
In reality, people could and would touch us without our permission and although the sanctity of our dance circles came before outsiders’ demands, we would spend years trying to become theft-proof in a nation of thieves. I’ve lost pieces of myself between temples and the Ivory Tower, trying to believe that decency and safety were the same. I know better now.
I’ve begun to dance indecently again, but my body struggles to remember its best self. When I drop it, I can’t always bring it up and in the last minute of a song, I have to choose between breathing and dancing. But I’m on the mend. When my daughter asks me why I shake my butt, I tell her I do it because I really, really like it. Maybe she’ll like it too. Or maybe she’ll always sway. Either way, I’ll cheer her on as if she is a member of my circle who takes her turn at the center.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter