Oakland's Hella Cool Dance Craze

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Why you should care

Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t move like these kids.

Brushing your teeth, smoking a joint, swinging a baseball bat — these don’t sound like dance moves. But at a rugged street dance battle in the heart of Oakland, California, they hella are.

It’s called turfing, and it’s really all about a quirky reenactment of everyday life, about expressing who you are and how you live through mime. Shooting hoops, lighting a cigarette, even yawning are all fair game. Combine that with the foundational moves of popping, hand tutting, gliding and some fancy footwork — and you’ve got turf dancing.

And what does it look like at the scene in question? At one of the largest turf dancing battles in the nation in Oakland, it was all about the theatrics. The country’s top turfers dressed in pre-Halloween ghoulish garb, glided across the main stage at the New Parish and performed gravity-defying stunts on pointed toes.

Turf dancing is what gives me life.

Jasmine “TurferGirl” Haynes

“It’s like giving a résumé through dance,” says dancer D.A.GO, who goes by his street name. He judged this particular competition (all seven hours of it) and says this particular strain of street dance requires complete openness and creativity. “It’s really about individuality and showcasing yourself, even more so than the dance,” he added.

The dance is moving from the urban stage to the throes of a full-fledged movement. Johnny Lopez, founder of TURFinc, an organization trying to build up Oakland’s turf dancing community and the battle’s organizer, aims to take the dance to the next level by injecting “structure and professionalism” into the street-born movement.

Garages, underground parties and city streets were once the primary venues to witness turfing in action through the early 1990s, he explains. Until now. Big, organized indoor competitions like this one are starting to catch the attention of local media and propel some dancers into the spotlight, including 22-year-old Jasmine “TurferGirl” Haynes.

She got her start in 2008 as a street performer in the middle of San Francisco’s busy Powell Street. She’s now one of the youngest and one of the few female turf dancers on the scene. Haynes took home first place at an all-female dance battle back in July and won second place with her dance crew at Lopez’s latest turf dance battle.

“No one that is out there competitively is better than her,” said Jeriel Bey, who teaches turf dancing workshops to young people and discovers street dancers from West Oakland. “She wears the crown in that degree. She’s definitely in her own lane.”

Most importantly for Haynes, turf dancing is her ticket to success, which can be hard to come by in Oakland, a city that averaged 11 shootings per week this year, has the highest per-capita robbery rate in the nation, and where more than 20 percent of its residents live below poverty.

But Haynes vows to never forget her Oakland and Richmond roots.

In the last few years, she has witnessed turf dancing explode in popularity and feels fortunate to have been swept up in the wave early on. “It’s a movement that I’m just so happy to be a part of,” she said. “Turf dancing is what gives me life, what helps me feel alive.”

In the meantime, she’ll keep gliding, flexing and tutting her way to the very top, carving out her own “turf” along the way.

Photography by Andrew S. Avitt

Video by Pierre Malin

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