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From Buskin’ on BART to Teaching Turfin’

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Telice Summerfield (center) dancing on stage with Keak Da Sneak (left) in Oakland.
Telice Summerfield (center) dancing on stage with Keak Da Sneak (left) in Oakland.

View the full episode transcript.

“Turfin’ is a way of life for me,” says Telice Summerfield, a dancer who has the ability turn a BART platform into a stage where she can glide, tut, bend and bone break on beat. She exchanges energy with onlookers; they get entertained and she gets empowered. The dance is an art. It’s also a political act, as she takes up space at will.

Turf, an acronym that stands for “taking up room on the floor,” is a style of dance that’s native to Oakland. During the hyphy movement of the early 2000s, the moves people were doing at house parties and in music videos left an indelible impression on Telice, as a youngster growing up in South Sacramento. When she was a teenager, her mother would drive her to functions in the Bay Area so she could be a part of the action. And as a young adult attending UC Berkeley, Telice found a home in Oakland’s turf dancing community.

Telice Summerfield's hair swings as she gigs in the center of a crowd during a recent battle.
Telice Summerfield’s hair swings as she gigs in the center of a crowd during a recent battle. (Amy Marie Elmer / Artful Eye Studios)

Through this community, Telice has built a career in dance. Last year alone she hosted the 2023 Red Bull Dance Your Style Competition, taught turf dancing to young folks at an elementary school in West Oakland, and led lessons on dance at the Oakland Museum of California.

Today we discuss how the hyphy movement opened her eyes to the arts as a child, how her experience at UC Berkeley exposed her to inequalities on campus as a young adult, and what dancing on BART has taught her about sociology.  Now that Telice is a known name in the dancing world, she also gives us some insight on her plans to take the culture even further.

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Episode Transcript

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Hey, what’s up family, welcome to Rightnowish. I’m your host, Pendarvis Harshaw, sliding in the studio to bring you a story that’s for sure going to get you moving.

If you’re an avid BART rider, chances are you’ve seen folks dancing on the train to make a lil change. The style of dance most people do on BART is T.U.R.F. Dancing, a type of dance that emerged from Oakland in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was popularized during the hyphy movement, and in many ways it carried the culture.

More than just going dumb, T.U.R.F. Dancing is about the smooth footwork, pantomiming and making facial expressions. It’s about the bone-breaking, tutting, and pop-locking. It’s storytelling on beat, and being player about it.

This week we’re talking to Telice Summerfield, a T.U.R.F. dancer who takes the meaning behind the acronym T.U.R.F.– taking up room on the floor– seriously.

Originally from South Sacramento, Telice was a kid when the hyphy movement kicked off. But she took note of it all: the good, the bad, and the dance moves.

And since then she’s gone on to teach dance classes in schools, host events at the Oakland Museum of California, and shine on stage at Red Bull’s Dance Your Style competition.

If you’re lucky enough to get on the right BART train, you’ll find Telice going from station to station, giggin’, doing bone-breaking contortions, and acrobatic moves as she performs on public transit. It’s because of this work ethic and talent that Telice’s name now rings bells in the Bay and beyond.

Today on Rightnowish, Telice shares a bit about her upbringing in Sacramento, her affection for the Town and how she’s T.U.R.F. danced all over Northern California– carrying the hyphy flag with her, and keeping the culture lit for the next generation.

All of that and more, right after this.

What’s your earliest memory of turf dancing, when was the first time you saw it?

[Music]

Telice Summerfield: So when I was 11, my.. I want to call her my cousin, but she really like my little brother’s auntie. She were not, like, blood re-. Anyways, she threw a party. I want to say she was like a junior or senior in high school, and she threw a big ass party right there in Meadowview and it was so lit. It was like my first function. And in there they was fuckin wit’ it they was turfin’. And Iike it just was… it so lit. It was like one of the most hyphiest young moments of my life.

By, like, my junior year of high school, I was like ditching school to go to the battles or I would like, leave whatever school event. I was into extracurriculars, very studious, very smart. But I would be leaving the school shit to go dance because that’s really where my heart was.

Pendarvis Harshaw: During that time period, we have this thing called the hyphy movement. And through that, it furthered the cultural identity of Northern California hip hop. And it spoke to you in Sacramento. You latched on to it. What was it about the hyphy movement that spoke to you?

Telice Summerfield: Oh, my goodness. I felt a sense of like, ‘ooh, that’s me.’ Like, it was just like a sense of resonance, you know? Um, it allowed me to be free.

With the hyphy movement and with hyphy culture and like just the energy behind it, there’s a sense of like, relief and freedom and like, “Oh, you don’t actually got to sit like this and eat like this and do this.” And there’s no supposed to. You know, you could just like fuck with it, you feel me. And like it was very electric for me. Like I will always turn up. The Federation was my favorite. And whenever I felt constrained by rules or by circumstance or by um, obstacles, I could always turn on some hyphy slaps and it would just be lit like, I just would feel better, you know?

Pendarvis Harshaw: Something that I really wanted to touch on, is the fact that your mother would drive you and sometimes even your siblings to functions in Oakland so that you could dance. What did her belief in you do for you as a burgeoning dancer?

Telice Summerfield: She would do all of that sacrificing, and mind you she was like… the battles back in the day was like 25 dollars, maybe 20, 25 dollars. And she couldn’t afford to get us all if she would drive all the way from Sac, maybe with my siblings in a car, if they was around, if not, they was at home or whatever. But they would all wait outside for me and she would pay for me to get into battles and wait hours, hours for me to just be exposed, like maybe, maybe not cypher, maybe, maybe not meet a few people. You know what I mean?

Like, I was a lot more reserved and a lot less confident at the time, and so she would go the extra mile just for me to have the exposure to what I love most. And for me, like, especially in hindsight, I can never pay her back for that. You know, it’s like an investment that, like, she really believes in me and it’s paid off. You know, I’m able to pay my bills now off of dance, just off of me being who I am. And like, that’s a blessing. That is… that’s irreplaceable. You know, you can’t put a price tag on that. So, her investment in me way back when just showed me that she believed in whatever I decide to do, she gon’ stand ten toes behind me.

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s beautiful. As a parent I know that that’s something that, yeah, you kind of live through your child in a lot of ways. And… and so seeing you pursue your dreams and be successful, I’m sure she’s proud of you.

Something I got to get here because this is an important part of your story. You get into UC Berkeley, you move to the Bay Area. You study social welfare as well as Spanish, and at the same time you weren’t all the way feeling what UC Berkeley was in terms of the social life on campus. So you ended up in Oakland. What did Oakland provide for you as an outlet during that time period?

Telice Summerfield: Oakland provided a sense of like home. Like it didn’t feel like there were as many social expectations or regulations. Racism wasn’t as heavy as it was in Berkeley. My craft held more weight in Oakland, you know, like I feel like my… I could take my craft to Oakland anywhere, you know, especially on the trains. Well, like, anywhere really and be recognized for what I do and, like, really be affirmed in what I do. Whereas like in Berkeley, it just was like, “Oh, that’s cool,” you know?

Pendarvis Harshaw: Very much so. I went to Berkeley for grad school. Similar situation where on Fridays I would drop my backpack off and just be in the town and I… It was a release, I could breathe again.

Telice Summerfield: And that’s a lot of the reason why I would either if I was in Berkeley, I was either at home, in class, or on my way to the BART. [chuckles] Like, I was never really kickin’ it in Berkeley. I never really was fucking with the parties like that, like none of that, because I didn’t feel a sense of belonging. I didn’t feel like there was room for, like, real black girls, like.

Berkeley is well known for its political activism, its progressive activism, but there also still exists a lot of hegemony and hierarchy in that arena just to even have access to it, you know. So I felt that a lot and just Oakland gave me an escape. It gave me access to myself.

Pendarvis Harshaw: That makes perfect sense then. And that investment in yourself paid dividends. You furthered your community. You met folks who were into dance just like you were. You met my best friend in the world, Jesus.. Zeus El, who’s a legendary turf dancer. And so I’ve known Zeus since seventh grade, and I’ve seen him develop this turf dance family kind of from the outside. You know, I know a lot of the people, but I’m not a dancer, so I’m not in it. And so I’m wondering, what is it like being inside of that turf dancing family?

Telice Summerfield: First of all, shout out to Zeus. I love him so much. That’s big bro.

He’s incredible. He takes everybody in with open arms. And that’s not the case for all the turfers. And that’s not… that’s not our general standard of embracing people. You know, a lot of times people have to earn it. But he just like, welcomed me and I just- I’m so grateful.

[Music]

Telice Summerfield: Being inside of that family is like it’s very nuanced. Like there’s very, very high highs and the lows really kick you in your ass and there’s a lot of politics too, that are not easily, uh, legible to an onlooker, right or somebody who just whose perspective is from the outside in.

It’s very critical that we stay connected, even if we don’t see eye to eye or even if we don’t agree on a topic. Being in that family is not easy, but Zeus made it a lot easier. Like I met, he was one of the first people I met in my first, like, day of being in Berkeley by myself without my family, you know. Like I went to the gym and I went to go flip with him. And that also gave me a sense of myself because I’ve been an athlete for a long time. And it just reminded me like, there’s not… you don’t have to separate your identity into categories, like they can all blend and serve your purpose for who you are.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You came out and you stole the show at a KQED event. We were honoring dancers from… basically 100 years worth of dancing told through this show. And toward the end, we invited folks to come up on stage and start hittin it, and you came out there, giggin, you knew a little bit of everybody and folks knew you.

Telice Summerfield: Being integral to what I love most has earned me the opportunity of getting to be who I am authentically, everywhere I go.

When you see me interacting with people and you see me like…. Like you said, I knew a little bit of everybody. Someone that I met from years ago in school could be at a KQED event and remember me or recognize me. Right. Or someone that I met through a village auntie can be at another event and remember me. You know what I mean? And so I think just like, developing authentic relationships and being authentic to who I am has allowed me to earn my name and earn like the…honor behind it.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You mentioned dancing in different places and people knowing you from the different hats that you wear. Do you have a different approach when you’re dancing on big stages or community events or even on BART?

Telice Summerfield: Dancing on big stages is really fun. It’s really fun because the support is for the most part, it’s overwhelming.

[Music]

Telice Summerfield: It allows me to expose the culture to a larger amount of people and the way that I do it, is unique because I wasn’t here, you know, I wasn’t in the Town in 2006, 2007, 2008, right? So the way that I do it has to be genuine to who I am.

It feels empowering to dance on BART because I know that I can always feed myself off my craft, you know? But there’s… there’s, like, nuances, right? Like, there’s the good with the bad. Like, BART is not the cleanest place to be hustling. It’s not the cleanest place to be dancing, you know? So I don’t sit down when I’m dancing on BART. Like I don’t sit down on BART, period.

Most people who see dancers on BART, they rarely see girls. They rarely see girls who are raw. I don’t know, I don’t even really see girls like that and I be out there! So, like…

Turfing in itself is taken up from on a floor, right? And it’s like radical, it’s political. It’s not- it’s not just dance moves Like you can feel it, it pierces you, you know, And whether I’m dancing on BART, whether I’m dancing in a battle, whether I’m dancing at first Friday, whether I’m dancing at a music festival, like people can feel that.

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s dope, Okay.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: And, in terms of that validity in developing community and reaching folks during the pandemic, BART ridership took a dive. You pivoted and started doing work online. You developed a dance club called “Pussy Power Dance” and it became popular. Why do you think folks latched onto it?

Telice Summerfield: Well, I created Pussy Power out of a deficit of platform, right. Each month I would host a IG live session and it would last for about an hour and I would invite girls to come and perform on Pussy Power and, um, they would take 3 to 5 minutes to dance and they would just showcase. And I made it a showcase on purpose so that it was more open to all level styles, backgrounds, like I didn’t want it to feel like a competition or like a battle or like you’re going against all these girls in the live, right?

And I think that people latched on to it because they probably felt the same way and also because they saw how unifying it was from like, the barriers of time, space, language, level of dance, and any other constraints that could keep us away from each other, they- those obstacles didn’t limit us when we were on pussy power. So like, every episode was so inspiring, and all the girls were like, ‘oh my goodness!’ It was just so cool.

To me, giving back is a part of why I do everything that I do. Like I want everyone to walk away with something, even if it’s inspiration or hopefully it’s tangible. And so through Pussy Power, even though there was all these dimensions that kept us apart, I still was able to give back in tangible ways and that made it more popular.

Pendarvis Harshaw: It’s something, you seem like you’ve etched out a career path. Now you’re working in education as well, teaching young folks dance in West Oakland. Tell me more about your day job.

Telice Summerfield: My day job is teaching dance at an elementary school in West Oakland. And I teach from preschool up until fourth grade. Basically, there’s two classes of each grade and each class like, circulates through my class,

In my class we do, like it’s not elite dancing at all, you know, it’s not like it’s not “traditional” what traditional dance classes would look like, where like they’re learning a choreography and then they’re doing the choreography, right?

It’s more of like embracing movement as a creative expression of empowerment. You know, it’s like confidence building. It’s like them embracing that dance culture is really fun.

What I do, like, my role is to, like, uplift them and empower them and like, show them like, even if you don’t feel like the best dancer in the world, you can still come touch the stage and show some poses. And, you know, you can walk down a Soul Train line like the queen that you are. And so that allows them to share information of movement with each other, um, back and forth and just like embrace each other, you know, really see each other.

Pendarvis Harshaw: And then beyond that, you also do workshops with folks of all ages through the Oakland Museum of California. What’s that experience been like?

Telice Summerfield: The Oakland Museum, shout out to them. I love them so much. The workshop that I taught recently, it did have a diverse age group and I’m grateful for that because the movement and the information that I have to offer. I do want it to be accessible to everyone. And so I hosted a dance workshop on the front steps in the front patio of the Oakland Museum. And at first it was like only a few people. And like, there was some people who were feeling shy so they just wanted to watch. And then there are some people who are like, “Yeah, I’ll do it..I come fuck with y’all.” But by the end of the class it was like a good 15, 20 people and they all like, “Yeah!” You know, they’re all really excited.

And I like to end with uh, activities, games, you know, dance circles, things like that, because it… it’s not so like… accomplished-based. It’s actually about how you feel because it’s not just a dance move. It’s not just a dance style. It’s like a… It’s a feeling, you know what I mean? It’s like a… it’s like a radical act, it’s a radical practice. So people feel that when they’re in my classes, in my space, learning from me, they always leave with smiles. And that just makes me feel like, oh my goodness.

Pendarvis Harshaw: You’re doing the work. You’re doing the work. And it’s, I mean, the smiles and also like having income based on it, being able to make a living off of dance, that’s a sign that you’re on the right path. With that said, why do you personally think it’s important to pass down these lessons to the next generation?

Telice Summerfield: Several reasons, I really in my heart, I know that if we don’t pay it forward, the culture will die, like, just period.

[Music]

Telice Summerfield: You know, and so, I really, as someone who’s really passionate about it and who cares about this a lot and like who makes a living and defines my path with this turfin’ shit, like turfing is a way of life for me. And as someone who uses this practice as a way of life, it’s critical to pass it down. It’s critical to pay it forward. So that way I’m not always… the burden isn’t always on me to keep this alive. Like, you know, it’s not just on any of us. Like we have a whole ‘nother generation of people who are emerging and maybe they can do a little bit more with this practice, with this community than we were able to do. You know, maybe they can reach farther than we were able to reach, you know?

Like there’s a lot of people around the world who want to learn turfing, you know, and we have it. It’s not like we’re not capable. There’s just some disconnects that I want to, like, connect so that not only I can get paid boucou money to travel the world, to teach and learn turfing. But my peers and my… my youngins can also do the same and see tangible opportunity from this, you know?

Pendarvis Harshaw: Everybody eats, B.

Telice Summerfield: Everybody eats. Everybody walks away with something.

[Music]

Pendarvis Harshaw: I want to give a huge shoutout to Telice Summerfield. You’ve found your path, and you’ve simultaneously carried the culture with you! Thank you. Thank you for taking it even further!

You all can follow her on Instagram at tuuhleacee spelled T-U-U-H-L-E-A-C-E-E. And that’s the best way to stay updated on Telice’s upcoming performances, classes and more.

This episode was hosted by me, Pendarvis Harshaw.

It was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena and Sheree Bishop.

Chris Hambrick is our editor.

Christopher Beale is our engineer.

Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend, or write a review on your favorite podcast platform. It helps more people find us. Thanks y’all.

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

Peace.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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