When I made the decision to check out one of the hip hop-inspired "Work it Out" classes at the newly opened Dancing Grounds on St. Claude Avenue, I had a few hesitations. The first was my fear that it might look something like this, the second was that I've had a long, complicated relationship (read: hatred) of dance ever since the days of jitterbugging in my middle school cafeteria for boy-girl mini-proms, and the third is that I heard there would be twerking.
Twerking is great, but the whole movement seems so utterly intuitive. Like touching your nose with your tongue, the isolation of azz didn't seem like something that could be learned, let alone mastered, by those who weren't naturally inclined to put their booties in the air. And what is dance, if not a natural inclination toward uninhibited movement?
But the class surprised me. First of all, it's not really a popping class, though the studio does occasionally offer those, generally taught by expert bouncers in New Orleans. We began by introducing ourselves, and seeing an eclectic mix of soon-to-be twerkers — men, women, black, white, young, old — smiling and speaking so candidly took the edge off for me instantly. Some warm-up moves to Beyonce came next, with all the dancers facing the front of the room and watching our extremely hip hop-proficient teacher, Laura Stein, show us the moves.
It became clear within a few minutes that the steps didn't matter, as long as you weren't in the way. What did matter was literally and figuratively letting your hair down to embrace whatever this class was going to do for you. "It's all about people expressing themselves in whatever way they need to," says Stein. Plus, popping only took up a small portion of the hour and a half. The rest was hip hop and fitness.
After the warm-up, we built from a slow isolation to fast twerking, and we all faced the wall when the shaking got quick, so if you were embarrassed, you could be less so. I couldn't ever really drop the image of myself and how completely ridiculous I must have looked, but I imagine with time a person would lose that self-awareness, which is really as it should be, since everyone was paying attention to his or her own popping anyway. Stein says twerking is incorporated to help folks develop the confidence, flexibility and strength to do the movement.
Maybe at bounce night you're conscious of the way other people are looking at you (I've always just stood there in awe), but at Dancing Grounds dance seems to be much more about letting the day go with a little bit of sweat than it is about looking really really sexy. It's a safe place for a first time dancer or twerker not quite ready for a stage, who still needs to practice in front of a mirror (or without one) and who could benefit from instructions like, "imagine you're holding a flashlight (between your legs), and you want that flashlight to tap the wall behind you." Or, more generally, "Dancing with your hair in your face feels amazing."
Maybe it's not something that can be taught. But I prefer to see my first lesson in twerking as a fun way to let off some steam, feel a sense of belonging in a beautifully renovated new space with friendly fellow dancers, and feel the burn in my quads the next day as I reflected on how completely great it felt to let the music move me.
That's why Stein started the studio. "That’s what the miracle of dance is, for me," she says. "There’s nothing more cathartic than being connected to your body in that way."
Dance Grounds has a variety of dance and yoga classes, from Bollywood to ballet, every night of the week.