The world has changed. In our effort to accept all cultures as equal and worthy of respect under the banners of multiculturalism and democracy as well as our human tendency to pass on practices while forgetting origin and context, we arrive at controversy. Let's look at the case of the recently great Michigan "Booty Cheer" drama.
Most of us who are parents share concerns about the sexualization of children, especially little girls dressing as scantily as exotic dancers or mimicking Beyonce's moves while singing her hit "Single Ladies." Consequently, we readily agree that six-year-old Kennedy Tesch's mother was right. The so-called "cheer" taught to little Kennedy's cheerleading squad that roots for the Madison Heights flag football team was inappropriate: "Our backs ache/our skirts are too tight/we shake our booties from left to right."
For questioning the appropriateness of this chant, however, the mother was not rewarded but penalized. Her daugher was kicked off the cheering squad. Well, that hardly seems fair.
If you watch the MSNBC video on the story, you may surmise, as I have, that kicking Kennedy off the squad was much more about punishing her mother for challenging authority and going public with the story than it was about any love of the grand old "booty cheer."
As Tashi Singh asks "Was it worth hurting a child, her parents, and ultimately the reputation of the school in order to keep some silly cheerleading chant?"
Singh is not the only one asking that question to which they answer may be crazy things happen when human egos are on the line. The other question arising from the story is this, "Is that actually a cheer and where did it come from?"
I was born in 1960, am 50 years old, and was raised in the African-American community of New Orleans, La. When this story came to my attention in email, I responded that the infamous "booty cheer" is a marching chant or cadence, and I remember hearing variations of it as a child and teen. One of those is this one:
"To the right, to the left, to the right, left, right.
My back is aching,
My drawers too tight,
My booty's shaking from left to right.
To the left, to the right, to the left right left.
The words shift with time and audience. When adopted by girls "drawers" become "bra." In cleaner versions "bra" becomes "shoes," or "drawers" become "pants" or "belts" and "booty" becomes "hips."
I remember hearing this chant outside while playing with other children and as I got older, possibly on the bus following a football game while the boys beat out the rhythm on the back of bus seats. Checking around the Web, I recalled hearing other adaptations that came after my playground years that were used by cheerleaders along with "Bang Bang Choo Choo Train," and someone said in the email thread that she recalls the "booty cheer" as part of Double Dutch jump rope games.
How the "booty" version of this rhyme evolved to being taught directly to children by an adult, however, makes less sense. I do not recall an adult ever teaching children this chant or a teacher promoting its use at any formal event. It was passed strictly from child to child or teen to teen, or in the case of what may be its original use, adult soldier to adult soldier. At least that's how I recall its origins and use and that's how I explained it in the email thread.
Memory, nonetheless, is a tricky thing, and so I called old friends and relatives asking them what they recall of this old chant-become-cheer. One friend who now lives in Maryland and whose children are in high school said she remembers cheerleaders saying it at football games, but as we talked she said, "The more I think about it, the more I think I heard it after games.
That makes sense. She went to a predominantly black, all-girls Catholic school through which some girls became cheerleaders for a predominantly-black, all-boys Catholic school. The nuns would not have approved or anyone referencing bras and booties.
Then I called an old boyfriend who used to be a Marine. He said the cadence sounded military, but his unit never used it. Finally, I called my aunt, who's 73 and used to be a second grade school teacher in Tennessee. I recited the version I remember to her and asked her did she remember it. After she laughed, she said, "Oh, yes. I remember the little children saying it on the playground. But it was nothing a teacher would have taught a child."
We then discussed how her mother -- my grandmother -- would have disapproved had she heard any of us saying when we were little. And how my mother, who was also a school teacher, may have raised an eyebrow and suppressed a grin while publicly shaking her head if she heard other people's children saying it. She would never have approved my speaking these words. I knew her well enough as a child not to test her on it.
My aunt and I agreed that the rhyme is not really a cheer in the traditional sense. There's nothing about the chant that encourages a team to make a touchdown or intimidates the other team, unless of course, it was the intent of older cheerleaders to distract the opposing team by shaking their behinds.
The aunt I called is the one who makes me laugh the most, and she said that black cheerleaders (in predominantly black communities) say nonsense like that all the time. And then she said that her granddaughter, who is bookish and a freshman in high school, came by her house the other day and announced she was trying out for cheerleaders and my aunt said, "Oh, sweetie. Why would you do that? That doesn't even fit your personality?"
Then "sweetie's" father, a 40-year-old black man said, "That's right. You don't want to do that!" And he got up and imitated the kinds of cheers he's seen some high-school black cheerleaders do, complete with shaking his butt and flinging his hands. He chanted something like. "Yo' mama! Yo' mama! Yo' mama don't know commas!" I could guess that it probably continued with some echo of playing the dozens and a final line such as, "She always want some drama."
These kinds of cheers in the black community go back to children just having fun and cheerleaders either entertaining the crowd, trying to outdo and intimidate cheerleaders from the other school's team, or "dis" someone as in "Brick wall waterfall," used in the movie Dickie Roberts Former Child Star and is akin to "Bang Bang Choo Train."
Here is a little girl performing the chant for an adult, but without the "booty going from left to right" part.
Quiz time: Whose cultural mannerisms do you think this little girl is imitating in that video and also these little girls in this other video? From what group of children do you think the rhythm and mannerisms came?
Trying to track this chant's history, I even consulted books. Laura Love, another African-American woman who is about my age, recalls in her memoir You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes a friend saying this cheer in 1975.
So, is this another case of a black thing becoming a white or all-of-America thing? I don't know. But I'm positive the diction is African-American in origin, and it's this understanding of the origins of the chant that's now a cheer that caused me to say in the email thread that the Michigan incident with poor little Kennedy and her outraged parents is an example of the "the misappropriation of black culture backfiring." The chant's been passed down and across cultures, and today other people are saying it because it sounds cute or funny and so many of us are playing in the same pool. Those appropriating certain aspects of culture such as chants and rhymes as well as those whose ancestors originated the chants and rhymes no longer recall from where the chant came or how it was once used or perceived in the culture of yesteryear. They don't know whether adults approved or disapproved and which adults approved if any.
I'll add now, when it comes to the lines such as "my skirt's too tight/my booty's shaking from left to right," it's also another example of the misapplication of adult culture to children through an official channel, adults in authority. As I've said already, when I was a child, adults did not pass this chant to children.
Furthermore, this chant seems to have traveled in its raunchier states from male military culture to civilian culture to children and back to adults, some of whom, such as the cheerleader coach in Michigan, failed to recognize it as inappropriate in terms of specific words or suggested behavior. The rhyme is not something adults should model to six-year-olds.
Context and word association has also changed. When I was a child in the 1960s, the word "booty" was not as sexually-charged as it is today. Neither was the idea of what it means to "shake your booty" the same. When I heard this rhyme as a child, while adults did not promote its use to children and while we children knew there was something a little naughty about it, and so giggled when saying it, none of us had seen yet "booty popping" or heard of "booty calls." The word "booty" was used as an alternative to more offensive words such as "ass" by adults while not being as proper and formal as "buttocks." A mother might say, "Get your little booty in that bathtub," and the child would giggle and go take a bath.
Additionally, in the mid seventies, when I was a teen, despite us hearing songs like KC and The Sunshine Band's "Shake Your Booty" on the radio and laughing as we danced, to get down was not so sexual and looked more like the Soul Train Line and a whole lot less like the pelvic gyrations seen in this era's music videos, such as the older "Shake Ya Tailfeather" by Nelly and the newer "Give It Up to Me by Shakira."
The Shakira video, by the way, features black step movements from African-American Greek organizations which you may read about in one of Gina Carroll's older post at BlogHer.com. I share that tidbit because Shakira's video is another example of how much we've become a cultural melting pot, using language, music, and dance moves that did not originate in our own ethnic group with no understanding of their original meanings or use. We just like it, and later, having no idea of source or an actual desire to consider origin or culture, we use the language, dance, music, etc., in ways that get some of us into trouble as the "booty cheer" has gotten the Madison Heights Wolverines cheerleader coach in trouble. We even argue about use of our contributions to culture and point fingers, accuse each other of stealing from one another and lying about what we know or don't know, as though we all have the same background and understanding and culture is finite and never exchanged, or in some cases we assume culture is always exchanged and so all products of culture are common knowledge.
For instance, mulling over the Tesch's complaints at Prince.org, BklynBabe responds to the question "Did the parents overeact?" and assumes everyone with cheerleader experience must know this cheer/chant:
I saw them on the news yesterday and the lady said she had been a cheerleader her whole life and never heard that before and that is just pure bullshit. I totally remember saying that as a little girl on the playground (I was never a cheerleader), that little ditty is older than dirt. I could concur that maybe 6 year olds should not be saying it, or doing the single ladies dance either, but she turned me off trying to lie like she never heard it before.
She thinks the mother should have known her daughter might learn this cheer, I suppose, but later she provides a rundown of the chant's history, taking some of her information from a discussion board I discovered right after hearing about this story.
At MudCat.org, members discussing military Jodies (marching cadences) confirm my belief about the possible origins of the chant as I first heard it and that later gave birth to the line "shake my booty from left to right." A former soldier, Eugene, who says he was in Basic training from 1966 to 1967 shares this experience.
Man, do I ever remember those old cadence calls we used to do, all of which I think were meant to put psychological pressure on the troops so they would soften up and the Drill Instructors could "mold 'em" into what the Army thought they should be. Those downright mean old Jody calls actually had some of the guys crying in their bunks at night and others mad and ready to go home and open a can of "Whoop ass" on some as yet unknown dude who was cuckolding them while they were away!
Some times there were additional verses added by the most creative DI's, but here's the most common ones we marched to. (The DI gave the calls and the soldiers yelled the capitalized chorus parts):
Your pants pulled up,
your belt's pulled tight/Your balls are swingin from left to right.
There are more, but that's enough for this discussion and our consideration that "balls" became "booty." When you look at the "booty cheer" through history's lens, you see the soldier's version was altered significantly when it became a children's chant.
At CocoJams.com, a section on military cadences, which references scholarly articles, informs readers:
Some of the verses used in military cadences can be traced to African American gospel songs, dance songs composed during slavery, and R&B songs. References to popular cultural characters such as Batman & Superman are also found in some of these chants. Some military cadences have become the basis for children's handclap rhymes and cheerleader cheers.
I think the chant was passed from male soldiers into civilian culture through civilians hearing it and liking its rhythms and naughty words, but changing some to be less offensive and from there to children, where it was altered further to keep them out of trouble, and then back up to adults who came later or recalled it from their own childhoods and not having heard the military Jody, thought what they heard was "just a children's rhyme." And this is where the misapplication began. Some adults, thinking that this is just something fun that children say and like, passed it back down to children in its various forms until the "booty cheer" met Mrs. Tesch who thought its inappropriateness and the poor treatment of her daughter was important enough to share. Mrs. Tesch was onto something, and for ill or good, the cheerleader coach of her daughter's former squad has resigned, according to the Madison Heights Wolverines flag football website.
So, for those who were wondering, we've answered the question of how these lines became a cheer for children. What we haven't answered is why a coach of any race in America would, after hearing the version of the chant taught to Kennedy Tesch, would think this cheer/chant is the best rhyme a six-year-old can shout in public. Do you have an answer to that?
While you're thinking, I leave you with this song, "My Back is Aching, My Bra's Too Tight," lyrics in part swiped from the same chant/cheer discussed in this post. In the song the chant's been fully co-opted from black culture by a group called The Stepford Wives, and they are imitating with an awareness of source seen in use of Afro wigs and references to Afro combs. Perhaps they are stepping on the nerve of cultural convergence and societal messages in general. Objections, anyone?
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