People are gathering virtually for work, to see friends and family, and to blow off steam. Sure, there's online fitness classes, but there’s also Free The Cheeks. It’s a class that teaches women different ways to shake their booties, embrace their sensuality, and feel empowered. In this story from our archives, we visited them at In The Groove Studios in Oakland.
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When you walk into a dance class, what do you expect? Leotards, straight lines, maybe some ballet shoes? Well this class is different.
As you enter the class, there is an alter that sits by the entrance that is covered with brightly colored scarfs, incense, and a West African fertility statue. There is also a circle of women sitting in the middle of the room, most of them wearing knee pads and booty shorts. The smell of burning sage is in the air. The instructor sits among these women and begins that class with introductions and the topic of discussion for the day.
“Okay. So we're gonna go around. We going to do names, signs and I wanna know how do you guys practice healing or like empowering yourself. Can we do that?” says Bre’Onna “Breezy” Powell, co-founder and instructor of this class. She teaches it with her sister.
One by one, the women rattle off their names, astrological signs, and the various ways they heal. One woman says knitting gives her joy, another believes that drinking wine and masturbating is the ultimate form of self care. Pretty quickly, this room full of mostly strangers feels more like a family gathering. You almost forget that this is a dance studio.
But these women did come here to dance. To be specific: they came to twerk. Welcome to Free the Cheeks: Twerk Church.
Yes twerking! A dance including but not limited to: back pops, p-pops, walking the dog, slow winds, fast winds—all in all shaking that ass.
So how did a class like this come to be?
“The idea started originally from Breezy. We were both teaching at a dance studio in downtown Oakland and Breezy ended up teaching a twerk class there,” states Bobbi Knowles, co-founder of Free the Cheeks and Breezy’s sister.
“It was very fitness based and it was like only an hour and then the class was very like superficial and surface level,” Powell says.
They wanted to create a space that would not only incorporate twerking, but more meaningful elements. This includes a space that's not just for dance, but a space where people could talk and vent. Something specifically geared toward women of color.
“A lot of times we just kind of go through the world and we're not really heard or we deal with things and a lot of stuff on our own. I think a big part of it is really just giving people space,” Knowles explains.
So Breezy quit her former job and found space to rent at In the Groove Studios and Bobbi followed soon after. Now almost three years later, they both teach a two-hour class every Saturday. The name for the new class was inspired by Breezy’s former students.
“It was like after like people got off of work. They would come in wanting to twerk but they would like controlled the parts of their bodies that needed to be free in order to twerk. So I was like listen you can't control the cheeks you got to Free the Cheeks,” says Powell.
With almost three years of classes under their belts, both Breezy and Bobbi have garnered a following, and a loyal one at that. “I found out actually from Breezy and Bobby's mom. And she was like, ‘You should come and take my daughters twerk class,’” states Crystal Williams, a student who has been “freeing her cheeks” for almost two years now. She is what the sisters call a “vintage booty.”
She can usually be found with others like her, leading the new women along with the instructors through the twerk choreography. But for her, the class is more than just a space for dance.
“I keep coming because we've built a sisterhood. It's therapeutic for me and I get to express myself in ways that I don't typically get to express myself.
Because I was raised to temper myself, not speak up all the time. I get to do that here,” notes Williams.
Women’s Only Space
Breezy and Bobbi recognized that the reality for a lot of these women is not being able to express themselves, especially their sensuality. Whether they’re shaking their ass or not, women’s sexuality is constantly being policed. And because of that, they’ve made this space for women only.
“The class is specifically for women because we haven't felt like we could express our sensuality. You know, we've been violated before you know? Other women included have been raped, stalked. It's to come together and celebrate that we are not our trauma and we can still find beauty in parts of us that we were told we're ugly or like disgusting or filthy,” explains Powell.
Yet, the world hasn’t quite caught up with their views. So for safety concerns, they’ve had to hire a security guard to stand by the door to keep the space from being disturbed. Security is also used to deter any less than favorable onlookers.
Now, this class could be alot, especially if you were under the assumption that it was just a twerk class. So you have to wonder what the “new booties” think of the class. “Yes, it is my first time here,” states Amber Perkins-Ellis, a new student who heard about the class, by literally hearing the class.
“Yeah I used to work just next door to here. And I heard the music and it's just like is it’s poppin, it's lit. I got to go. I always saw like a lot of black women coming out of this space and that really attracted me to because I feel like in the Bay Area it's easy to get like isolated” says Ellis.
The idea of community draws in a lot of students and the actual twerking can be seen as the cherry on top of this glorious sundae. With the twerking, talking, and overall relationship building, this class tends to go over its allotted time, but even still the class isn’t over just yet.
As an ongoing tradition the class ends the same way it began: in a circle. The aptly name twerk circle is saved toward the end of the class as a way to, “close off the energy and get you guys set to be out the door,” states Knowles. Every woman gets a turn to freestyle to a barrage of twerk classics and booty bangers inside the circle as the outer rim cheers them on.
The music is loud and the energy is out of this world. It’s hard not to smile watching a group of joyful women twerk their hearts out. Just as the music stops they join once more in a circle and are led in one final chant by the sisters:
"Pussy is... power! Pussy is... power! Free the Cheeks: Twerk Church! Praise pussy! Free the Cheeks: Twerk Church! Praise pussy," shouts the class.
As I'm packing up, I notice that most women stay to go over moves and share information on potential jobs or just where they got their nails done. I see a lot of bonds being formed. These women need a space like this. Hell, I need this space- and places like it. I say my goodbyes, and take one last deep breath of the sage-filled air. It’s time to head back into the world. But don’t worry Breezy and Bobbi, I’ll see ya’ll next Saturday.
This story originally aired in February, 2019.