On Saturday afternoon, a child of Central City helped her home neighborhood lead the world.
Bounce sensation Big Freedia — the stage name of Freddie Ross — cued her hit, “Duffy,” and shook her behind all the way to a world record.
Roughly 500 people came to the Central City Festival and signed up to move their rumps for two continuous minutes in order to break a world “twerking” record set by 358 twerkers led by Big Freedia in Manhattan’s Herald Square in September 2013.
All day, festival organizers actively recruited visitors to become twerkers, attaching blue wristbands to those who said yes. They marked their progress toward the world record through names and numbers written on sheets of lined notebook paper.
“We can’t let New York have this record,” said Jamilah Y. Peters-Muhammad from the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. “We want 400 butts in motion.”
Peters-Muhammad, who’s known as Mama Jamilah to most of Central City, is both a nurse and a dancer-percussionist. And she felt passionately about putting New Orleans on top in the twerking category.
“Bounce is a New Orleans dance style, and Big Freedia is the face of bounce,” she said.
Yet she also understands that some people see twerking as nasty.
“I’ve had some people look at me as if I had horns and a tail,” she said, noting that, in New Orleans, she can be both a great-grandmother and a skilled twerker, which she sees as an expression of freedom and joy.
From her perspective as a nurse, she also sees dance in any form as a route away from diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Even so, some potential twerkers needed coaxing.
“You got a booty?” dancer Cinnamon Black asked her childhood friend Alfred Marshall when he declined to join the world-record group. “You don’t have to go round and round,” Black said. “You don’t have to drop it like it’s hot. You just have to move it for two minutes.”
At first, Ashton Morris, 16, an Ashé volunteer, had decided that he’d be a twerk observer, which he said carries its own joys. But after handing out hundreds of blue wristbands, he attached a blue band to his own wrist and walked into the official Guinness-sanctioned “crowd participant” area, cordoned off with police barricades on a section of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
Nicole Pando, a Guinness World Records official representative, used a counter to keep track of people who entered the barricades through a back entrance. Then one festival-appointed monitor was assigned to each group of 50 participants to make sure they followed Guinness regulations.
Some were motivated by hometown pride.
Grandmother Sylvia VanBuren leaned on the barricades, watching her granddaughters, ages 7 and 9, warm up for the world record. “That’s all they do is twerk,” said VanBuren, who grew up in Uptown, in the 12th Ward, where bounce music made up the neighborhood soundtrack, she said.
Others were motivated by a sense of shared community that on Saturday crossed gender, race and age boundaries.
Just as Pando was about to secure the back entrance, Central City resident Mai Do ran up, begging to get into the Guinness area with her two toddlers, Ethan, 2, and Madeleine, 4, who ended up being among the youngest twerkers in the crowd.
“Are you ready, New Orleans?” asked Freedia, explaining that people needed to remain mostly upright and that they should forgo any of the wiggling and ground-hugging “freestyling” that she typically would encourage. Then she turned her back to the audience and bent over slightly for two minutes, leading all those who kept their posteriors moving — some steadily rocking, others shaking, bobbing and vibrating.
Pando consulted with the monitors, and about 50 participants were ruled out for either stopping during the two minutes or for moving in a way that was inconsistent with the definition of twerking. But even without them, a new record had been reached: 406.
Big Freedia announced the milestone with emotion in her voice. “I grew up around the corner on Josephine,” she said. “And I took it from Josephine to Hollywood.”
Peters-Muhammad watched, nodding. “She’s taken it everywhere,” she said. “Taken it all over the world. And now she’s brought the record home.”