How Turfers and Ballet Dancers Found Their Groove Together

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Oakland street dancer My-Linh Le is one of those people drawn to the things that connect people, rather than what keeps them apart. But last fall, when Le set out to bring together some of the Bay Area’s top turf dancers alongside a selection of the region’s rising ballet talent in a single dance project, she soon discovered she had her work cut out for her.

"When we first started rehearsing it was really awkward; a lot of standoffishness," says Le.

For many of the dancers, bringing the styles together felt "like mixing fire and water,” says Michael “No Name” Chicago, a member of the No Mercy dance crew. “Where ballet dancers have so much grace, structure, and form, turf dancers glide with our sneakers on the concrete. We shred our shoes up to see who has got more heart, who is more aggressive.”

What started out as a culture clash of dance styles evolved into a close collaboration among 12 dancers and the launch of The Mud Water Project. The project aims to create opportunities for turfers to showcase their art in concert-style settings and to audiences often beyond their reach.

Members of several different Bay Area turfing crews, including HEAT, Unknown Artifacts, and Knuckle Neck Tribe, have joined the collaboration. Dancing alongside them are students of the prestigious  Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program and its BFA program at Dominican University of California, known for pushing the boundaries of the dance form.  The Mud Water Project has provided an opportunity for the ballet students to push even further.


“The turfers bring a very strong intuition and self-empowerment to dance,” says Markus McCray, a ballet student in the Alonzo King LINES Ballet Training Program. “And that energy alone has changed everything for me, because as a concert dancer, I’ve been very trapped in the cerebral idea of what dance is.”

KQED Arts’ cameras took a close look at this unlikely collaboration, capturing rehearsals and one of its sold-out performances at the Dance In Revolting Times (D.I.R.T.) festival earlier this year.

The Mud Water Project dancers now want to go deeper in their exploration of merging dance styles. They are working to secure funding to expand their initial 17-minute performance into a full-length show. Le has high hopes for the ongoing collaboration. “These dancers are listening so closely to each other,” she says. “The synchronicity is extraordinary.”

Listen to a radio piece about this collaboration from KQED’s April Dembosky here.