Oakland’s Turf Dance as an Agent of Change
By Sabrina Sellers
(Above) Turfer, Garion “Noh Justice” Morgan, a member of the crew Turf Feinz, showing off his moves on the BART Train.
As the BART train whizzes through the tunnels and neighborhoods of the Bay Area, dance manifests itself away from the proscenium stage and off the streets of Oakland in a style of dance called “turfing.” Groups of young men and women can be seen rotating their upper extremities in unimaginable positions, hanging from train fixtures, and gliding, as if on ice, for throngs of people on their daily commute. But don’t be mistaken: turfing is not just a BART-exclusive form of entertainment, but is honed and battled in the “turfs” of Oakland as well as all over the country. In a way, turfers form gangs of their own and trade violence for dance moves as a way to resolve conflicts faced in the inner city.
Turf, which stands for Taking Up Room on the Floor™, is credited to dancer Jeriel Bey who originated the art form on the streets of Oakland. The style of Turf is an offset of the 60s style called boogaloo according to Wikipedia, and like most street dance, borrows moves such as popping, tutting, flexing and locking, from other styles of street dance. But turfing isn’t comprised of a set of moves strung together choreographically and methodically rehearsed; it’s mostly improvised.
“You’re telling stories with your dancing. You’re like doing anything you can do with your dancing,” said turf contortionist Justin “Turfbieber” Sakamoto. “I could like tell a story of me eating a hamburger and throwing it away with my body. I’m telling a whole story with my body.”
Turfing is not just a hobby for these dancers. Nor is it like its classical and codified counterparts. It’s a way for them to stay out of trouble; the kind of trouble that kills young people in their neighborhoods. “Without certain people that’s older than me, it wouldn’t even get me out of the streets,” said dancer Chris aka “J-Tro 4times.” “So I had to learn how to dance instead of be in the streets selling drugs, or even holding a gun.” In this way, turfing has become generational. Everybody learns to dance through close family or friends and passes it on to the next generation within their community. And turfing evolves within that passage, changing from what it originally was into something that encompasses endless creativity. It’s also a way to create a better future for the next generation by encouraging them to stay off the street.
“Any type of things that the community has to offer and they reach out to us, we always show our talent and show that you can be whatever you want to be in life. You can do whatever you want to do and just go for it and be right,” said Turf Feinz dancer, Denzel “Chonkie” Montgomery. “‘Cause in Oakland, there’s a lot of killing and stuff so we try to push to silence the violent movement, so kids can know, you know, whatever you do there’s nothing wrong with it.”
On any given day, turfers can be seen lifting up BART riders’ spirits with their energy. And it only takes one moment to bring them back everyday to perform. “When I see that reaction. I forget everyone else on the train,” said Turf legend Garion “Noh Justice” Morgan who dances for the renowned crew Turf Feinz. However, the reactions aren’t always positive. “We do have some people that downplay our art because they feel like it’s nothing; that anybody can do it and that you can go to school for it,” said dancer, Charmika Norwood aka “Too Wet.” “But within in our Turf nation….We don’t have money to go to school — so we have something to feel free. This is how we let out our expressions.”
Off the train and outside of Oakland, turfing has been featured in many hip-hop pop- culture moments. Turfers can be seen in many of rapper E-40’s music videos, recently in G-Eazy’s “Calm Down,” and most notably in the video for Kendrick Lamar’s hit song “Alright.” You can also find turfers and crews such as Heat, BA or Best Alive, and Turf Feinz around the Bay, both on the BART and often performing in battles and various community events, such as Oakland’s First Fridays street festival every first Friday of the month at Telegraph and 23rd.