FREE TO WUK DA WAIST: Justifying Wukking Up as an Expression of Freedom
‘Wukking-up’, often described as vulgar, deserves justification. What is ‘wukking up’ anyway, and why does it persist in Barbados popular culture?
‘Wukking up’, coordinating rotatory, percussive, and vibratory actions of our hip and legs, gives our pelvic girdle mobility to respond to musical rhythms. ‘Wuk-up’, ‘jerk waist’, ‘juk’, ‘pooch-back’, ‘spin-pooch’, etc. are all euphemisms for what we do with our hips, legs, backs and pelvis when we improvise to calypso and “tuk” music. How our bodies are positioned, whether in a certain reserve or with more abandoned feeling, get even more attention when we connect to another body. When we ‘wuk-up’, we risk being accused of indecency.
African and African-heritage dances have evolved through time on the continent and in the diaspora. These characteristics remain, including earth-bound movement and a low center of gravity, bent arms, poly-rhythmic isolations, synchronicity in movement and music, contrast, coolness, and movement that is centered on the Pelvis (Carty Folk Dances of Jamaica). These forms are found in both religious and secular settings (Burrowes).
In Barbadian traditional communities, wukking-up had specific boundaries, and was socially organized around age, time, and occasion. As young people, we were considered cute when ‘wukking up’.
In Barbadian traditional communities, wukking-up had specific boundaries, and was socially organized around age, time, and occasion. As young people, we were considered cute when ‘wukking up’. Around the age of puberty, we were expressing our sexuality and prowess in socially accepted and chaperoned spaces. Then, after childbearing, it no longer seemed appropriate for us to engage, except on very special occasions, usually with people in our age category.
Nowadays, ‘wukking up’ persists in Barbados despite racial, class and gendered biases. We risk being labelled as having ‘deviant’, ‘poor’ and ‘working-class’ behaviour, complicating ‘wukking-up’ as a signifier of our Barbadian identity and our blackness.
These biases existed during the period of enslavement. Dr. George Pinckard’s 1796 account of a group of enslaved persons dancing on a Barbadian plantation appears to be describing ‘wukking up’, with “stamping of the feet, twistings of the body, and a number of strange indecent attitudes” and “severe bodily action” (Handler & Frisbee) (Pinckard). As opposed to European dances where arms and feet are the primary movers for locomotion, the dancing bodies moved by shuffling, “writh” with a trance-like quality, revealing Pinckard’s aversion.
Our Barbadian non-verbal texts and oral narratives deserve more attention. Beyond Pinckard’s depiction and present-day criticism, our calypsonians position ‘wukking-up’ as celebration, identity, retention, and resistance. This claim to freedom contradicts the myth that Barbadian colonizers were successful in yoking ‘Africanness’ out of us.
Criticisms that discredit ‘wukking up’ as un-West African deserve context. How Barbadian dance evolved more reflects what happens when a system designed to disconnect African heritage peoples from aspects of their religious, social, and cultural origins affect their practices than any colonizing concern. Still, while Barbadian society remains racially and socio-economically biased, ‘wukking up’ remains a common denominator, an expression of freedom and resistance in popular culture, with retentions that reverberate with other Afro-Caribbean derived dances (Brathwaite).
Culture Clinic is a weekly column crafted by Dr. John Hunte.
1. Brathwaite, Edward (KAMAU) Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean Mona, Jamaica Savacou Publications (1974) 1985
2. Burrowes Marcia, “Culture at Risk: Whose Engine?” The Barbados Landship: The Ship that never goes out to Sea (website) Barbados, Pinelands Creative Workshop 2007 http://pinelandsbarbados.org/landship/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22&Itemid=37
3. —, “The Cloaking of a Heritage: The Barbados Landship”: in Gad Heuman and David Trotman, eds, Contesting Freedom: Control and Resistance in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean Oxford, MacMillan Caribbean 2005
4. Carty, Hilary Folk Dances of Jamaica: An Insight London: Dance Books 1988
5. Handler, Jerome S. and Charlotte J. Frisbee “Aspects of Slave Life in Barbados: Music and its Cultural Context” Caribbean Studies Vol 11, No. 4 Puerto Rico, Institute of Caribbean Studies Jan.1972
6. Pinckard, George Notes on the West Indies London Longmans 187