SAO PAULO, Brazil— Sometimes it's best to let your butt do the talking.
That's a basic tenet of "Batekoo," a party turned social movement that's challenging racism, homophobia and gender norms in Brazil.
"Twerking is a form of empowerment. It's about feeling comfortable about our bodies, and how we move them is nobody's business but our own," says Brazilian black activist Wesley Miranda, who along with his friend Mauricio Sacramento started Batekoo a little over a year ago in Salvador da Bahia, the first slave port in the Americas.
"This is about race and color, but also about sexual orientation. It's an affirmation of me," Miranda says.
Batekoo, which translates roughly as "shakin' that ass," is a celebration of freedom, blackness and African roots. It's a combination of twerking and Brazilian funk from the favelas. The dance moves are about people owning their sexual identity and rebelling—one cheek at a time—against societal norms and all its nasty isms.
It's also a good way to break a sweat and whip your hair in the club.
At a recent Batekoo party in São Paulo, I joined hundreds of young Brazilians who throbbed and twerked to beats spun by black DJs. Many black parties in Brazil hire white DJs, who in turn attract white crowds. "Most black parties are more white than black," one partygoer tells me. But Batekoo is different. It's unapologetically black, yet open to all.
It's hot enough on the basement dance floor to seriously reconsider clothing. Many of the dancers are shirtless. The sweat from their half-naked bodies forms condensation on the low-hanging concrete ceiling, then returns to the dance floor as rain droplets. Batekoo, it would seem, is not just a movement, but an ecosystem.
The most enthusiastic dancers push their way onto the stage and twerk for the crowd, in various degrees of undress. Encouraging hands reach up to slap an ass.
Some of the dancers are clearly seasoned twerkers. Others are less practiced.
"This is the first time I've twerked since 2013," says Antonio Augusto, who's dressed in a half-shirt, a red trucker's cap, and matching red gym shorts. "Sometimes when you dance like this in public, it brings out the racism in other people. But in here, with other gay black men, there's the freedom to feel safe. There's no prejudice, homophobia or racism."
But Batekoo isn't just for gay black men. At least half the crowd is women, many of whom are straight.
Batekoo also isn't something that's limited to darkened basement discos. Increasingly it's coming out of the cellar to challenge people in broad daylight.
Artur Santoro, 21, has recently taken to twerking on buses and in other public spaces as a way of confronting society on its various collective hang-ups.
"It forces people to acknowledge our existence. It's a way of challenging people and their values," the pink-haired twerktivist told me during a prolonged happy hour on a recent Wednesday night in São Paulo. "Some people laugh, some applaud, some judge. We don't give a fuck."
Just the act of taking Batekoo to the streets is a bold assertion of self.
"If you twerk in public or shock people in public you are already empowered. This is about empowerment," says friend and fellow Batekoo enthusiast Renata Prado.
For the movement's founder, Batekoo is about being both black and gay. "I can't separate the two," Miranda told me. "They walk together."
But Brazil's black LGBT community isn't exactly one big happy twerkfest. Activists readily admit to discrimination and transphobia within the black gay community. And the lesbian agenda is oftentimes different from the gay agenda.
As a result, Santoro says, black LGBT parties are usually "GGGG" parties, meaning way more gay than lesbian, bi or trans. "The black trans community is so marginalized they don't really participate," Santoro says.
But Batekoo is an encouraging start. It's a safe place for people who connect online to meet up IRL. It's about community and losing the fear.
"Batekoo is physical," Miranda says. "We're breaking down the internet walls and becoming a physical meeting place."
And that's a good thing. Because a community that twerks together, stays together.