Turf dancing workshop teaches Oakland dance culture, individual style
on March 17, 2011
Jasmine Haynes stretches her legs before taking her position in front of a large mirror, her small frame accentuated by an oversized black T-shirt and baggy jeans. She tucks her elbows toward her body, bends her knees, and forces her inner ankles to lie flush with the shiny wooden floor—her body looks like it’s dangling from imaginary strings. She holds the pose for a few seconds before springing up and gliding across the room, her head bent down, her dreads covering her face. She makes wave movements in the air and moves her feet from side to side, to the beat of the music.
This is what turf dancing looks like. At first glance, a mix of every hip-hop dance style mashed together, turfing has become more a part of mainstream dance culture.
“It’s just now getting national and worldwide acclaim,” said Oaklander Rene Neal-De-Stanton, 25, who’s known as one of the pioneers of turf dancing and has been teaching it for about seven years. “But the creativity and how spontaneous the dance is, and how we take on other dance styles, I think that soon, it will be considered almost like a modern hip hop dance.”
Turfing was born in Oakland in the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t until a 2009 YouTube video called “Dancing in the Rain,” produced by YAK Films, that turf dancing started receiving national attention. The video shows four friends turf dancing in the rain, and served as remembrance for one of the dancers’ brothers who had recently been killed in a car accident.
To bring turfing back to the local level, and to encourage local dancers of all skill levels to start, the Eastside Arts Alliance’s Oakland Hip Hop Institute is offering a six-session workshop. The workshop ends in a public choreographed showcase called “The Way We Move,” scheduled for April 29 and 30.
The institute’s organizer, Traci Bartlow, said the workshop is “all in this realm of learning the culture of hip hop in this area. [Turfing] is in the tradition of Oakland hip hop dance innovation.”
Stanton, who’s known to turfers by his dance name, Rawnay, is teaching the workshop and is trying to show dancers how to turf, while at the same time keeping their own individual style. Though the final performance is part choreography, Stanton said it will also allow each dancer the opportunity to showcase their own movements—whether it’s popping, where dancers jerk their body to the beat of the music, or freestyle hip hop. Because the style of turf dancing mirrors other hip hop dance styles, any dancer’s style can be translated to turfing. One helpful tip, Stanton said, is to connect with another person.
“Sometimes looking at somebody can be the best thing you can do for yourself,” Stanton said. “You have to connect with somebody.”
Stanton’s advice is well-regarded in the turfing community—which he said numbers in the thousands. He’s worked with celebrities like Fergie and Akon in showcasing turfing in their music videos, while also teaching local high school students this re-emerging style.
One of the 10 dancers at the workshop, and the only female, was Haynes, 18, who said she’s known as “Turfer girl.” Her eight years of dancing have mostly been spent emulating well-known performers like Chris Brown and Omarion, and only in the last two years has she immersed herself into the world of turfing.
“It just looked fun the first time I saw it,” Haynes said. “I just had to do it. This is the best style that I’ve ever seen.”
She said she saw a classmate turf dancing in the hallway at school, and that’s what spurred her interest. And despite being a part of a male-dominated activity, she holds her own well—she didn’t shy away from showing her moves to the other dancers during the workshop. She could glide and pop as well as the male dancers.
“There’s not many of us willing to dance like the boys,” Haynes said.
Although Haynes is well-versed in the art of turfing, other dancers at the workshop have spent their time focusing on other styles such as “tutting” and “bone breaking.” Tutting requires dancers to use their body to form angled geometric shapes, and bone breaking refers to moves where the dancer twists their arms in a manner that looks like they’re breaking their bones. San Francisco 18-year-old Isaac Hicks said he wanted to learn originality and open his interests to turfing.
“Turfing is something you can teach someone from scratch,” said Stanton. “I’m not gonna say they’re gonna be the greatest turf dancer, but it was built to be for anybody to learn.”
The term turf dancing means “taking up room on the floor,” which was later shortened to the acronym TURF, Stanton said. The phrase was coined by Oakland turf dancer Jeriel Bey, when the style was still known as “hittin’ it” because of the popping style it uses.
What sets turf dancing apart, but what is also making it a part of mainstream dance, is the transition and smoothness of the dance moves, said Stanton. Dancers are in constant motion, moving their arms and legs, often all in different directions. It also incorporates gliding, popping, and boogaloo—a popular Latin dance style.
But turfing requires more than the physical skills, Stanton said. He said confidence is a major factor and a lack of it shows in the moves. Dancers who aren’t confident move more stiffly and their movements don’t follow the beat of the music as well. It was apparent during the workshop that some of the dancers were more shy than others—the entire group formed a dance circle, with everyone asked to take their turn in the center—but Stanton encouraged them to not overthink the process.
“You have to zone yourself out,” Stanton yelled over the music. “Turfing is all about [being] free—your mind is free.”
Stanton emphasized to the dancers that they shouldn’t care about what other people think, which he said is a reason why he chooses to teach high school students how to turf—it became a key element to building a student’s confidence and not letting other peoples’ negativity affect them.
“We all become the same,” Stanton said. “You have all these different characters here come together. Somebody with glasses, a thug, but they’re not fighting—we’re all the same, you know. And all the energy is the same.”
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