Twerk Etiquette and Being A Household Name: Interview With Vertical Joe’s

Vertical Joe’s and its Twerk Technicians training are a household name in the pole dance industry. Having really enjoyed gaining my certification, and knowing Torwa Joe’s – a.k.a. Fiya Starta – way with words and educational videos, I have been wanting to showcase their work on my blog since June. Now, in the midst of this never-ending pandemic where Joe had to move the business online, she sat down to record a video interview with me, that I’m now writing up and sharing with you all. I’m so excited for you to read this super fun, incredibly insightful, educational, inspiring chat. It’s incredibly important that particularly white people read this, to hear a professional’s point of view on how to respect twerk, its origins and its creators if you enjoy it and teach it even if it’s not part of your background.

Watch Vertical Joe’s Respond To My Questions

You can catch the FULL interview here in this video – but be aware it is LONG! It is long because – my fault – as Joe said: “When I looked at these questions – girl! It’s like a full essay! I cannot bring myself to type these things.” But Joe’s candid, fun, Atlanta’s style delivery makes it really worth it.

However, if you don’t have time to watch the full thing, or want written quotes to live by, then I’ve got two written articles for you – this one and a shorter set of tips for beginner twerkers that you can find here.

Vertical Joe’s: From the Start to Stardom

Torwa Joe is of Liberian, West African descent and was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s a Gemini and she’s still afraid of the dark. She cannot swim and cannot skate, both skills that she is learning to do now.

Joe has been into dancing since she was a kid. She is a trained ballet, tap, jazz and African modern dancer. Unlike other polers, who earn their stripes through competitions, Joe earned hers through tours and TV appearances. She was on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, season one. Then, her big break was when she toured with Lil’ Wayne in 2007, performing in Back That Azz Up.

She twerked with Lil’ Wayne, 2 Chainz, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Young Dolph and Tyga to name but a few – pretty much everyone from Young Money – also pole dancing on that same tour. Those two experiences pushed her to the forefront of the industry. She and Vertical Joe’s have also recently been involved with the creation of hit show P-Valley.

Joe’s teaching and performing experiences seem like the stuff of legends. From teaching Cynthia from Real Housewives of Atlanta how to twerk to performing on a lift that shoot her to the top of a stage with fireworks coming out during Lil’ Wayne’s performance, to having to switch from a wig to a bandana two minutes from going on stage during a major gig, Joe sure hasn’t had a boring life.

One of my favourite anecdotes she mentioned though has nothing to do with twerk, and it’s about that time when she taught Drake how to eat crab legs. Joe says: “You haven’t had crab legs with me, but I’m kind of a crab leg connoisseur, OK? I follow a vegan diet all week just so that I can slap some seafood into my mouth on the weekend!”

Joe was touring with Drake, who’s Canadian and didn’t know crab legs were so good. They had them delivered from Hooters, which was one of the few places where they were that served crab legs – not Joe’s favourite, as she prefers them to be “swimming in flavour and spices.” She says: “Hooters delivered to the room that we were in, and Drake was holding the crab leg like he didn’t know what to do with it, so I got to teach Drake how to eat crab legs!”

Joe’s Style and Her Passion For Twerk

Joe says: “I deliver a very dirty, South sexy type of [twerk] style, because I was raised in Atlanta and that’s the home of the strip clubs.” While Joe has never worked as a stripper, she is inspired by strippers’ style and heavily features them and often credits them in the Twerk Technicians training.

Joe’s favourite thing about twerk is that it’s something that anyone can do, no matter their size and shape: “you don’t need any equipment,” she says “and it’s a skill that anyone can learn.” She likes how mesmerizing it is, and how when people hear certain kind of music you just know that twerk is appropriate for that music.

Twerk is a great workout, but Joe also loves how it makes women feel: “I love the sexual element of twerk, like how it’s like directly related to African fertility dances – somebody who knows how to twerk is probably good in bed, you know what I’m saying? They’re probably very, very aware of what’s happening up in here!” *points at vagina*. She adds: “The thrusting, the control, the leveraged endurance, the strength – I love all of those things about twerking and that is why twerk is life.”

Miley and That Moment When Twerk Went Mainstream

The Twerk Technician Training’s twerk history includes a moment when twerk went mainstream: that infamous VMAs Miley Cyrus performance from the 2013 MTV VMAS.

While the performance is now one of the most cited examples of cultural appropriation, it actually had a positive impact on Vertical Joe’s as a business. VJs had been teaching twerk since 2007, and it had grown in 2009, but they thought people had tired of the class, and were about to launch something new. They were even planning to stop teaching twerk around that time. Yet, when Miley “did her thing” the demand to continue grew, more moves were added to the program, and Vertical Joe’s launched 99 Ways To Twerk. But how did seeing Miley Cyrus make twerk go mainstream feel?

Joe’s response is extremely gracious, complex and nuanced, and reflects the conversations about cultural appropriation and appreciation we should consider having.

“Miley wasn’t a black twerker, she wasn’t doing it well, she wasn’t a woman of colour… and the crazy thing is, women of colour have been doing this for a long time, so it was just a bit disheartening in general that it took for a woman who was not of colour to do it for it to be appreciated by the mainstream.

That was one thing that set in a little bit after, but I will say this: one thing that was great about it is that I believe firmly that everyone needs to see someone that looks like them, so I do feel that a lot of women, especially women who are not of color, probably looked at twerk before that and said, ‘I can never do that, I would never be good at that, and there’s no one that looks like me doing it.’ Miley doing it definitely said, ‘Hey ladies who look like me. you can do this too,’ so that was the bigger lesson that I took from it.”

Overall, Joe says that Miley’s performance helped many twerkers, sending a global message that twerk was fun and that other cultures were welcome to it, and appreciates Miley for doing that.

Twerk and Cultural Appropriation

So how can dancers twerk and teach twerk in a way that respects its origins, even if it’s not part of their heritage?

Joe believes that learning and teaching something created by another culture should start with research, finding out more about its history and pioneers. Then, she says, comes practice: you need to get good at it, “not just be like, ‘Oh I just started doing this, now I teach it.’” After that, Joe says it is important to pay homage, celebrate people that have inspired you or a pioneer in that particular industry, and learn to admire them, because paying homage is a big part of avoiding appropriation. Lastly, she says I think it’s important to be a part of things, without claiming they’re your own: “Joining someone culturally does not mean stealing the culture from them. Share it, celebrate it – but don’t steal it.”

For Joe, another way someone can celebrate twerk culture is collaborating: “Collaborate with someone of color, work with them. You’re on their page, they’re on your page.” Collaboration gives both people visibilities and showcases individual styles.

She also recommends to use your platform to educate people about the origins of twerk, and celebrate twerkers that they may not know about. “It shows that you’re not forgetting the history,” Joe adds, especially if you keep adding that bit of history to your classes so that students can go away having learnt something more than just a move.

Twerk and Music

Joe is very passionate about twerk’s link with music, and thinks that, when twerking, it’s important to celebrate the music it goes with. She finds it disturbing when someone twerks to songs that, unlike trap music, don’t have rhythm and bass lines. She says: “Things like My Booty Symphony, people doing isolations to that, are cool, but trying to do a fully-fledged twerk routine to a song that doesn’t have a bass line is a little disrespectful to the craft itself and its origins.”

Joe also thinks that it’s important to twerk music that you feel comfortable dancing to, and that you can sing along with. She did a whole class about the N-word and twerk, and has a lot of helpful opinions this complex, loaded term. She argues:

“My first thing is if black people would stop using the N-word in songs, we wouldn’t have to worry about people who are not black saying the N-word or dancing to the N-word. At the same time, I understand why we use the N-word the way that we do and why it’s our word and no one else’s word.”

But should white people dance to songs containing the N-word? For Joe, the N-word has never been easy to deal with it and has to be dealt in a case-by-case basis. She says: “For me, I’m like, hey, you know, it’s music. People enjoy the song, they’re supporting a black artist by dancing to the music. But knowing that you know the words to this song, you think: if that person wasn’t around, would you be saying it?” She adds:

“Like, say you posted a video of you twerking on Instagram and the song is using the N-word 1000 times – you’re probably going to catch some kind of backlash because it’s probably a song that’s expressing things that if you’re not a person of color you can’t understand, you can’t sing along to that – at least not in front of people of color.

According to Joe, it’s very hard to give straight advice, because a lot of great songs use the N-word in it – so much that even at gigs she performed at, artists would sing the uncensored version of their song and an almost all-white audience would sing it back… with the N-word. Still, she suggests that her Twerk Technicians should use a clean version of the song that you can play, sing along to and teach to.

What VJs Are Up To Now

Joe has completely optimized her business for it to run online during the pandemic, and has delivered a variety of webinars about diversity, the N-word in twerk and other important issues in our community.

Although on a smaller scale, the Twerk Technicians training was already often Zoom-based before Covid-19. When the world went into lockdown however, Vertical Joe’s had two trainings that were meant to happen offline, which had to be moved online. Adapting to a new, fully online format was initially a challenge: “We had to come up with basically a new format for the class, because we weren’t used to doing it all online. We had to make it more interesting.”

Supplies were also a problem: Vertical Joe’s merch suppliers were out of business due to Covid-19, putting them behind on production. They had to get all their training and virtual online on one, same platform: “Downloading stuff, and uploading stuff, and editing stuff and all of this – it was so much work!” Now though, Vertical Joe’s are at a point where this is a new normal: the websites are sorted, they caught up with orders and shirts, although shipping is still tricky and one of their packages to UK trainees was initially sent back at customs. However, the expansion of the online Twerk Technicians certifications have offered VJs a whole new set of possibilities: “The online classes have bought a set of technicians that we would never have been able to catch up with – like, we’ve had people in Australia, and an in Prague, and Iceland, and even more from the UK.”

Joe adds:

“Lockdown forced us to elevate the Twerk Technician brand more, because before it was just a training that we did every now and then. We launched our Technician Heels as well, and we launched Twerkathons which we probably wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for Covid.”

She leaves me with her final words of wisdom:

“I love how everyone has become more creative being in Covid – even my timeline has gotten more entertaining! I want to continue to encourage my fellow entrepreneurs to continue to adapt, ’cause that’s the way that you continue to elevate yourselves… and not just elevate yourself: survive!”

The future seems bright for Joe, Vertical Joe’s and Twerk Technicians. She says: “The goal now, I want to be like Zumba: Zumba is everywhere, no matter what industry you’re in, everybody knows what it is”.

Where to Find Joe and Vertical Joe’s

Joe now has more Twerk Technicians training coming up, Twerk Technicians Heels, Twerkathons and more masterclasses. She’s also working on twerk on demand pre-recorded classes, and on the Ultimate Twerk Kit – meaning you have access to both classes and pre-recorded tutorials. Joe also teaches both spinning and static pole, and has tutorials on 123 poling.

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One comment

  1. […] Read more about twerk and cultural appropriation in my long form interview with Joe here. […]

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