Turfing Grows Up

A new competition highlights three generations of Oakland turf dancers.

On a June afternoon inside Firehouse Art Collective on Adeline Street in Berkeley, Johnny Lopez coolly leaned back on a stool and emceed the dancing in front of him like it was a boxing match. “Let it go,” Lopez yelled to Oasis, a dancer who moved his joints in precise, robotic movements, perfectly synced to the dubstep that thumped from the speakers. Oasis had come all the way from Indiana to compete in TURFinc, a turf dance battle organized by Lopez, which pitted him against local favorite iDummy. When it was iDummy’s turn, he glided gracefully across the stage and twisted his limbs behind his head like a contortionist. Between these two very different styles of turfing, the judges chose the latter. Maybe Oasis should have listened to Lopez and let go.

Turfing started in Oakland in the Nineties, an evolution of a Latin style of dance called Boogaloo, which was popular in the Bay Area in the Sixties. The genre received mainstream attention in the mid-Aughts, boosted by hyphy rappers such as E-40, who featured local dancers in his video for “Tell Me When to Go.”

“A lot of people thought it dropped off after that, but it blew up around the world,” Lopez explained. “It’s even bigger internationally than it is here.” That’s something Lopez hopes TURFinc will change: “We’re hustling to help people get the respect they deserve.”

Lopez — known as Johnny 5 — has been turfing since middle school and is a member of the Oakland crew Turf Feinz. At 23, he’s part of the second of three generations of turf dancers, each of whom incorporate different styles and attitudes, and all of which come together every other month at TURFinc.

Lopez held the first TURFinc battle in November 2012 at an East Oakland tattoo shop: It drew 150 attendees and 50 dancers. He moved the second event to East Oakland teen center Youth UpRising, where he teaches dance, and it was there that he met Oaktown Indie Mayhem promoter and Awaken Cafe booker Sarah Sexton. Sexton said she’s been a fan of turfing since the 2009 viral YouTube video “Dancing in the Rain,” which pays tribute to a Turf Feinz crew member’s half-brother, who died in a car accident: “It’s more than just dancing — it makes you feel something,” Sexton said. “It heals people.”

Sexton and Lopez partnered for the third TURFinc and have been working together ever since, moving the event to its current home at Firehouse Art Collective, where the crowd has swelled to three hundred attendees.

On Saturday, August 24, TURFinc 6 will feature a tournament of sixteen dancers, plus a main battle, a two-on-two battle, and live beatboxing and MC battles. Among the event’s four judges will be Jeriel Bey, a first-generation turfer who’s credited for naming the genre (an acronym for Taking Up Room on the Floor). Competitors will include Retro, who is known as Alonzo “Turf” Jones and who appeared on America’s Got Talent; battle-five winner iDummy; and Animaniakz crew member Zeus.

Zeus, né Jesus Ibn El, started turf dancing as a kid in West Oakland around 2000, and today is a dance teacher and an acrodunker for the Golden State Warriors. El, who mentored iDummy, said he teaches his turf students the foundations of dance and storytelling, not one specific move or style. He said in the early days of turfing, different styles evolved from each Oakland neighborhood.

“You used to be able to figure out where people lived based on the way they turf danced,” El said. “People from West Oakland have more of a bounce; people from East Oakland have a smoothness.”

By the mid-Aughts, turfing had become fully ingrained in popular culture. “The hyphy movement was only one side of turf dancing,” El said. “They made it seem like you had no sense. It’s so much more than that.”

But exactly what constitutes turfing depends on whom you ask. Around 2009, El said turfing had split into different camps: those who used the dance moves established by the first generation and those who focused on newer styles such as bonebreaking and cutting.

“For a minute, turfing got weird between generations,” El said. “You couldn’t differentiate between New York City and Oakland. It’s like, can you dance?” According to El, old-school turfing started coming back about a year ago, a trend he hopes the TURFinc battles will help reinforce.

At the TURFinc battle in June, one of the best performances came from a gray-haired man who had started dancing before most of the competitors were born. Lopez’s former San Leandro High School math teacher — who he referred to as “OG Mike” — busted out a ten-minute routine of Boogaloo and Strutting moves during a break between battles. If a generation gap exists in turfing, it certainly didn’t at that moment.

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