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How Turf Dancing Came to Define Oakland Street Dance

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Garion Morgan, a.k.a. Icecold 3000 of the Turf Fienz, dancing near the Port of Oakland in 2019.
Garion Morgan, a.k.a. Icecold 3000 of the Turf Fienz, dancing near the Port of Oakland in 2019. In recent years, turf dancing has undergone a revival, extending and building upon its hyphy-era origins. (Elie M. Khadra)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.

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t was a hard-fought dance battle in front of a live audience, with some of the region’s top turfers competing against an array of styles, from popping to fusion. After a rained-out Oakland contest, Red Bull’s Dance Your Style had reconvened in San Jose, and turf dancing — the Oakland-originated street dance form integral to Bay Area hyphy culture — took center stage.

When the smoke cleared, Oakland’s rising star Hector “Intricate” Ascencio stood alone at the top. With a flurry of Wing Chun-esque hand motions, floor drops, pantomimed gut punches, and expressive footwork, Intricate earned the right to compete in the National Finals, held in Chicago on May 20. Though he didn’t win, owing to tough competition and a song selected by the DJ that wasn’t especially turf-friendly (Ghost Town DJ’s “My Boo”), he represented the Bay to the fullest.

“Just winning for Oakland and in the Bay Area in general means so much, because we deserve to get put on the map,” Intricate said, a few days after his victory. “It’s a very rich culture in the Bay Area that obviously needs to be exposed more to the nation and to the world.”

Hector ‘Intricate’ Ascencio wins the Red Bull Dance Your Style competition on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Indeed, turf dancing has undergone a resurgence, returning to local repute and national stages in the past few years. For the second year in a row, Red Bull’s Dance Your Style has chosen Oakland as one of its host cities around the globe. Platforms like TikTok have introduced turfing to a new generation, and this month, E-40 — who included turfing in his landmark “Tell Me When to Go” video — brought back turf dancers for his newest video, “The Bay.”

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Red Bull has also named Turf Inc. founder Johnny “Johnny 5” Lopez a cultural ambassador, and spotlighted Oakland turfer Yung Phil in a mini-documentary. In 2020, GoDaddy produced a mini-doc on turfing, featuring Ice Cold 3000 and T7, founding members of iconic Oakland crew the Turf Feinz. And this year, the Oakland Museum of California featured turf dancing as part of its 2023 Black History Month events.

With renewed attention on the culture coming from multiple sources, “I feel like turf dancing is at a renaissance point right now,” says Intricate. “Actually, it’s at a point of reviving, and keeping itself alive. The dancers in my generation, right now, are bringing it back to the people.”

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Street Origins and Early Battles

Oakland’s street dance culture started with boogaloo in the 1960s, and predates the emergence of hip-hop dance by almost a decade. And yet its influential history – which includes turfing – is frequently overlooked. Media reports have mistakenly pegged turf dancing as a derivative of breakdancing, and until recently, many in the dance community assumed popping originated in Los Angeles, not Oakland.

The exact origin point of turf dancing is unknown. Some accounts date it back as far as the mid-’90s, as an improvisational, informal neighborhood dance that started in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms and adapted stylistically as it spread to other parts of the city. But its cultural roots date back to the boogaloo era, which introduced now-ubiquitous moves like creeping, tutting, ticking, animation, and “the Oakland hit” (which became known as “the pop” when it traveled down to Southern California during the 1970s).

Turfing added its own moves and aesthetic of expressive storytelling to the boogaloo blueprint – free-form Brookfield glides, buoyant West Oakland bounces, backflips, ballet-like jetes and en pointe maneuvers, as well as “bone-breaking,” or disarticulation of limbs. It was more balanced than boogaloo in terms of upper- and lower-body movements, and typically didn’t incorporate breaking’s established footwork routines or power moves like windmills or headspins.

Originally, turfing was known as gigging, and was practiced by inner-city youth and even some adults as a form or creative expression — and a way to resolve hood disputes without resorting to violence.

Jeriel Bey teaches dance techniques to Toby Hall at Berkeley High School in 2007. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images )

In 2000, Jeriel Bey, a dancer, educator and promoter originally from L.A., moved to West Oakland, next door to the Wood Street studio of musician D’Wayne Wiggins’ (of Tony Toni Toné). Bey had linked up with Richmond dance group Housing Authority, and was taking classes at Oakland’s Alice Arts Center. One day he was in his driveway practicing his steps when a neighborhood youth, Demetrius Zigler, rode up on his bike.

“Man, I’ll chew you,” Bey recalls Zigler saying, adding confidently. “I be fucking with it.” As the two began to show off their dance moves, Zigler danced in a way Bey had never seen. “What is that?” Bey said. “Man, I don’t know, I just be gigging,” Zigler replied.

“That turned into an everyday thing,” Bey says. “He’d come by the house and we’d be dancing.” Soon Zigler would bring other neighborhood kids to Bey, and they would all jump into Wiggins’ minivan and dance at birthday parties. Bey saw the potential to market the dance. But first it needed a name.

Bey went to visit his cousin in San Diego, and that’s when the lightbulb moment happened. “I was like, I got these kids that come to my apartment all the time. They all be dancing. They say they be fucking with it, but I cant really market that. It’s like turf dancing, they all be turfing, but I can’t sell that either, because white people gonna look at that and think it’s some kind of gang shit. So I came up with the acronym Taking Up Room on the Floor. When I came back to Oakland, I said, look, when people ask what we’re doing next time we do these birthday parties, we tell them we’re turf dancing, and it stands for taking up room on the floor. The name kinda stuck.”

Bey organized the first turf dance competition in late 2004, held at Laney College. “For the first hour, no one showed up,” he recalls. “Maybe like 30 minutes later, two thousand people hit the corner. Boom! I didn’t have no security or nothing. I had kids from South Central L.A., some krump dancers, and I had some kids from West Oakland, some turf dancers, you know what I’m saying?”

A month later, the wide-release movie Rize featured some L.A. dancers from the Laney battle. Word on the streets was “some little kids from West Oakland beat the kids from this movie,” Bey says with a laugh. “After that it just kind of took off from there.”

Jeriel Bey teaches turf dance techniques to students at Berkeley High School in 2007. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images )

In November 2005, Bey was preparing for a rehearsal when he got the news that Zigler had been shot and killed right down the street. In his honor, Bey says, “I made a promise to myself that no matter what happens, I’m gonna keep promoting the culture.” He continued to organize street dance battles between turfers and dancers from Los Angeles and Memphis.

“City-to-city hood dance battles is what I’m known for,” Bey says, noting that his events were “something different” from what had been done before. “I didn’t come up with the dance turf dancing, but I coined the term, to give it some life and bring attention to it.”

Turf dancing, he says, “is a way of telling a story. It’s an attitude.”

At that time, he says, “There wasn’t really a lot of people doing what I was doing in the community.” Back in the day, he continues, “there was the Black Resurgents, Gentlemen of Production, Demons of the Mind – a lot of the founding fathers of the Bay Area, strutters, robotters, breakdancers – set the precedent for us. So now we’re able to look at that, and add to it.”

Dopey Fresh competes at the Red Bull Dance Your Style event on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Bey eventually formed the pioneering turf dance crew the Architectz with the kids from his West Oakland neighborhood, and used his music industry connections to get the crew featured in the original video for Keak Da Sneak’s iconic song “Super Hyphy.” (Bey himself is the one saying “fa sho” and “fa sheezy” on the song’s hook.)

By that time, some older turf dancers had already appeared in music videos by Baby Bash and the Federation, and as the hyphy movement unfolded, turfing became its unofficial dance. As a street-bred phenomenon, turf dancing wasn’t initially regarded as a legitimate art form; Bey had championed the dance as part of a community health initiative, but that view wasn’t shared by the city of Oakland.

“We were a little too street for the Art & Soul festival,” he says.

The Hyphy Explosion Meets the Youth Center

Other institutions, however, welcomed turfers. In 2005, Bey recalls organizing turf dance battles at East Oakland youth development center Youth UpRising, a one-stop shop that offered wraparound services including music and video production, academic preparedness, job training, teenage pregnancy services and mental health counseling.

Bey remembers Wiggins telling him about the center and suggesting he do events there. So he went down to meet with the staff and said, “If I throw battles here, a whole lot of kids are going to show up.” Which was exactly what the center – part of a multi-agency initiative aimed at curbing violence and improving academic performance – wanted to happen.

(L-R) Zel Koozi, Tee Seven, Yung Phil and Icecold 3000 of the Turf Fienz in 2019. (Elie M. Khadra)

Jacky Johnson, currently Digital Services and Events Manager for Oakland non-profit Urban Peace Movement, recalls, “When I started at Youth UpRising, we were trying to figure out how we were going to get young people into the center. We had this big 25,000-square-foot space, programming was free, it was for 13- to 24-year-olds, and we were a very small staff.”

The turf battles started out small and informal, but soon ballooned to hundreds of kids, Johnson recalls. The Architectz were involved early on, as were offshoots like the Animaniaks. “Some of the Turf Fienz were affiliated with a group called the Goon Stars, and there were dancers in our battles that weren’t affiliated with any of the groups.”

Youth UpRising also hosted turf dancing classes and, combined with the ongoing battles, shifted turfing culture’s epicenter from West Oakland to the Eastside. According to Johnson, “There definitely has always been a void for safe spaces that the culture can be celebrated and housed in. And I think that it was just a lot of energy around the center.”

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After E-40’s representatives called Johnson to organize a music video shoot at the location, Bey was asked to choreograph turfers for what became the national hit “Tell Me When to Go.” Following this, the Architectz were featured in the Federation’s “18 Dummy” video and went on tour with E-40. Bey later choreographed music videos for artists like Snoop Dogg, while the Amimaniaks added vocals to DJ Shadow’s 2006 single “Turf Dancing” (which, curiously, did not have a video).

Now 27, Intricate began turf dancing at 12 years old. He was in the sixth grade when a friend, Raymond Silviera, whose turf name is Nemesis, showed him some moves in the school library. Later, they watched turfing videos on YouTube. “It got addictive, like a good drug,” he says.

Intricate recalls turf dancing’s prominence in the hyphy movement. “It was just such a big inspiration in the Bay Area and the culture, within the turf dancing (community), it was just beautiful. It was the main dance for that movement, you know, just being hyphy, going dumb, going stupid, going to the sideshows in Oakland, and just going crazy.”

Hector ‘Intricate’ Ascencio competes at the Red Bull Dance Your Style event on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Jesus “Zeus” El, a former member of the Architectz and the Anamaniaks, has been turf dancing since the age of 10. Now 35, he says turfing is “something that you didn’t even have to really be a dancer to know how to interpret. It’s just part of the culture and atmosphere. I got involved just being in West Oakland in the neighborhood.”

Turf dance, he says, is “definitely a style with its own swag, it kind of encompasses Bay Area type of energy, the culture we all share already. It’s that energy mixed with animation and popping and different breakdown moves that we’ve had, as our foundational moves. But mainly, it’s a feeling. Like in the hyphy era, the feeling we had around rebelliousness and self-expression and movement and creativity.”

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For Zeus, turf dancing is a way to tell stories, but also a spiritual practice. When he’s dancing, he says, he forgets about stress and trauma, and enters a zone of blissful joy. He’s able to communicate non-verbally through movement and miming with unhoused people on his block; he fondly remembers the rapport he shared with his former neighbor Zumbi of Zion-I, who used to watch the turfer freestyle dance moves from outside his window.

Turf dancing’s raw energy often comes from deeply-rooted emotions. In “Liquid Flow,” a 2019 mini-documentary produced for the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) featuring the Turf Fienz and directed by YAK Films, Darrell “D-Real” Amstead says, “Oakland is a city of artists. Layer on layer. That pressure, the need to express yourself? It’s everywhere. Homicide. Housing. Money flowing out but never in. Somebody you know dead. Some people say all this, that we do now, came from all that.”

A Viral Moment, Born From Grief

Yoram Savion, founder and principal of YAK Films, was born in France but grew up in East Oakland and attended Castlemont High School. In 2006, while an undergrad at UC Berkeley, working as a teacher at San Quentin State Prison and a multimedia instructor at Youth UpRising, he shifted from digital photography to video production. In 2008, he began documenting turf dancers as part of OMCA’s “Cool Remixed” project. This led to him befriending the Turf Feinz, and to one of turf dancing’s most high-visibility moments, filmed on a Monday morning on the corner of MacArthur and 90th.

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“RIP Rich D” is a dance suite in memory of Rich D., the brother of one of the dancers. “It was a rainy morning,” Savion says. “D-Real’s brother had just passed away in a car accident on MacArthur, and we all felt very emotional and needed to save some of those emotions.”

The video, sometimes known as “Dancing in the Rain,” is a haunting, poetic demonstration of street ballet. Shot handheld in a cinema verite style complete with cars passing by, the Turf Fienz met the moment with glides, pirouettes, head-to-toe animation, freezes, handspins, splits, reverse somersaults, backflips, and handstands – all set to a slow-rolling, hypnotic hip-hop beat by Yung FX, Erk tha Jerk & COOP.

The video went viral on multiple online platforms, ultimately notching more than eight million views on YouTube alone. “That kind of made everything take off,” Savion says.

For many, “RIP Rich D” was their first exposure to turf dancing. Many of the views, Savion says, came from outside the United States. “I heard Jay-Z being interviewed by a famous DJ in London at the time, and he brought it up as a cultural reference,” Savion says. “Pretty much everybody in England has heard or seen it, and it was in an exhibit at the Oakland Museum that retraced the history of hyphy or turf. It’s often included when people are doing, you know, an homage to the Oakland cultural legacy.”

Hyphy was known as a high-energy, flamboyant movement, but layered beneath its Bay Area traditions was no small amount of trauma. (D-Ray)

But, Savion emphasizes, “it’s very important to remember where that video came from.”

It’s not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake, he says. “The video came from loss and grief, and a celebration of life. And so its purpose is very deep and meaningful for us who were involved in making it. The music is from the Town. We made it right there in Oakland. All the dancers are from Oakland.” The emotion in the dancing is immediately felt, Savion adds. “It also speaks on a lot of the things we were talking about at the time – criminalization and mass incarceration.”

Savion went on to make dozens of videos of the Turf Fienz and other dancers with the same stripped-down aesthetic. By going viral online, he bypassed many of the media gatekeepers who had overlooked Oakland in the past, while opening doors to others. “At the time,” Savion says, “we really felt there was an alternative to the mainstream. It was very noticeable to us when these videos started going viral and we got more fame online. A lot of the local news stations hit us; we even were on ABC’s Nightline.”

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These interactions, though, revealed a sociocultural dynamic not uncommon in mainstream news reporting: inherent bias. “To see the reactions of these TV crews when they would come to the neighborhood — these are places that we were at every day, with cameras in hand. And I never felt threatened or in danger in that way. And to see how their news crews were reacting, you could tell that there was this real sense of fear.”

To Savion, the hood documentarian and former prison educator, “That fear is something that comes through in a lot of the social interactions with people in neighborhoods that have been overly policed, or where people have been sent to mass incarceration in disproportionate rates,” leading to what he terms “a changing of the culture.”

The politics of gentrification aside, YAK Films helped make inner-city Oakland culture attractive to mainstream media outlets, while also creating opportunities for crews like the Turf Fienz and dancers like Zeus to travel and to work overseas. Perhaps most importantly, this exposure created renewed interest in turf dancing among the younger generation.

This became especially critical as hyphy’s hot streak cooled off in the 2010s.

Yung Phil dances at MacArthur BART in 2019. (Elie M. Khadra)

For Some, a Bittersweet Return to the Limelight

In 2012, Turf Fienz member Johnny “Johnny 5” Lopez founded his own production company, Turf Inc., and began producing turf battles in conjunction with event producer Sarah Sexton’s Oakland Indie Mayhem. The events soon widened to include boogaloo demonstrations by Oakland dance OGs and “all-styles” battles open to poppers, krumpers, and breakers.

In the mid-2010s, Turf Inc. began producing events on its own and organized a turf dance battle produced by YAK Films and held during the Art & Soul festival in Oakland’s Ogawa Plaza – keeping the dance visible, engaging veteran dancers like iDummy and Krow the God, and drawing a rapt audience of kids, teenagers and young adults.

That wave of momentum has continued through the present day, as Turf Inc. has grown into the Bay Area turf dance production company of record, producing larger and larger events and eventually getting Red Bull to come on board.

Johnny 5 of Turf Inc. dances on the sidewalk in San Jose on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

Lopez was first exposed to turfing as a youngster in the 2000s during a sideshow in his East Oakland neighborhood. Now he’s one of the culture’s most prominent faces, having been involved with music videos for Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Britney Spears. In the past year, he’s hosted an international delegation of Oakland turfers traveling to South America; and produced local events at San Francisco’s Westfield Center and Oakland nightclubs Complex and the New Parish.

Possessed of an ostentatious sense of style – he’s been known to sport a slicked-up flattop in various shades of neon – with acrobatic moves to match, Lopez has at times turf danced while wearing cowboy boots, a maneuver not recommended for folks at home.

Two things he doesn’t lack are confidence and a belief in himself. As he says, “Almost every major thing that I’ve done in my life, I manifested.”

Dance Your Style debuted in Oakland in 2022; in the process, Lopez became a producer and consultant for Red Bull. The first event was a pilot, “but I knew it was going to work.” Afterward, he says, “the whole Global (Red Bull network) was talking about the Oakland event, and that’s how they got more information about hyphy and boogaloo.”

Telice Summerfield at Guildhouse in San Jose on Friday, May 12, 2023. (Estefany Gonzalez for KQED)

For Intricate, the 2023 Oakland champion, opportunities abound, and being on a big stage only makes him want to compete more. “It could be a very well-known dancer with a big name, and I know a lot of dancers outside of our community who tend to just submit to that dancer. I love turf dancers because if we see even a bigger name against us, we’re going to go for it.”

Turf dancing’s future appears to be so bright, it’ll need to keep its stunna shades on. But to some veterans, the shinier lights offer bittersweet feelings and cautionary tales.

Savion readily admits he’s more into the artistically pure aspect of the culture. He’s discovered he doesn’t really enjoy producing events, except for the annual Life is Living festival, held at Oakland’s DeFremery Park. He views big corporate sponsors with a bit of a side-eye: in his estimation, they see the dance as a product to be marketed, and their involvement can dilute the grassroots aspects of the culture without creating true sustainability for its practitioners.

For Zeus, who built a side career as an acrobatic dunker for the Golden State Warriors and other NBA teams, and now works with restorative justice youth programs, turf dancing is “sacred.” Despite being seen by younger turfers as a legendary figure, and still occasionally getting flown to cities like L.A. to perform, he likens the current state of turfing to an ex-girlfriend: “You still love her, but you gonna give her some static.”

Apologizing during a long interview – the recent death of his brother weighing heavily on his mind – he collects his thoughts for a moment of clarity: “What turf dancing means to me is the ability to express yourself. Without worry, without judgment, and you’re able to create the pictures and paint the pictures that you like the most. Good or bad.”

Bey, the originator of the acronym T.U.R.F., worries he will be forgotten by history. He admits to making mistakes as a younger person, and blames “Oakland politics” for his work not being as accepted or revered as it deserves. Although born in L.A., he reiterates that he was back and forth between the two regions in his youth; the “not from Oakland” tag has left him admittedly hurt, although he refuses to be bitter.

“For me, the brand turfing was something I coined, something I wanted to protect. Because of a student who inspired me, who got murdered many years ago. And now, so much has happened.”

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