Johnny Lopez grins from ear to ear, two long braids framing his face. It’s a December evening inside the Lab, a storied San Francisco art space. A muscular man, Aaron Jones, has just climbed one of its support beams, swung his legs around, and dropped to the floor. When he lands, Jones gets on his knees, gasping for air before he face-plants onto the floor. Such a stunt isn’t seen often in turfing—a dance style as fluid as ballet that’s been a vibrant part of Bay Area hip-hop culture since the ‘90s. But as Lopez, who is emceeing this turf battle, knows, it’s also a vehicle for personal expression. Once Jones stands back up, he bugs his eyes out, as if dazed. Spectators rush the floor, screaming in delight.
All of this takes place in a scene from Turf in the Bay, an 11-minute short film directed by Gabriel Noguez. “When you see a dancer creating something magical,” Lopez says in the film, “I think everybody feels what he feels. I think it brings us all together, and now we all feel the same emotion.”
Turf centers around an all-ages turf dance battle held by Lopez’s company, TURFinc. The film, produced by GoPro, isn’t the first time that turfing has been introduced to mainstream culture. In 2006, E-40 featured turf dancers in his “Tell Me When to Go” video, capturing MTV’s attention. In 2009, local crew Turf Feinz filmed a dance video honoring member Dreal’s brother Richard Davis, at the street corner where he was killed in a car accident. The YouTube clip made TV news and has 7.2 million views because of its poignancy. But Turf in the Bay goes deeper, explaining how the dance style is more than just a passing craze.
Lopez, 26, first got into turfing when he was in middle school. Dancer Jeriel Bey had just coined the genre’s name, which stands for, “Taking Up Room on the Floor.” His crew, the Architectz, had turned turfing into a competitive sport by launching the first battles in 2002. Meanwhile, Lopez craved a safe haven for kids like himself. After having been raised “around gangbangers,” then seeing his cousin shot in the spine during a drive-by shooting, he decided to join Turf Feinz. In 2013, Lopez founded TURFinc, which now hosts battles every other month. Its first two events were in east Oakland, where he’s from. “I feel like people weren’t that comfortable [in east Oakland],” he says, “but they came out because they love the art.”
Several of the competitors in Turf in the Bay are scene mainstays. Lil Kida, the 14-year-old who busted moves next to Usher at this year’s BET Awards, has danced for a decade. Velo discovered turfing when he was 15, after he was wounded during a drive-by shooting. His mentor is iDummy, who spends his daylight hours turfing with a crew on BART trains. Over the years, these dancers have seen turfing become flashier and more physical—a popular move is called “bone-breaking,” which looks exactly as it sounds. When Velo talks about turfing, he wonders aloud whether the next generation of turf dancers will be the ones to take the dance style worldwide. He is 22 years old.
iDummy was 19 when he appeared on So You Think You Can Dance’s eighth season. Before auditioning, a short segment featured him explaining turfing’s fundamentals: swagger, footwork, storytelling and pantomiming. Seven years later, he gets why turfing still needs to be explained—but he doesn’t like it. He has only seen Oakland portrayed in the media as a living hell, despite how turfing is a sign of life outside the neighboring Silicon Valley.
“It’s always ‘Oakland has the most killings’ instead of, ‘There’s something positive going on in the community,’” he says. “People won’t know unless you tell them. It’s not put out there at all. I feel like they don’t promote positivity in Oakland. Then people don’t come to Oakland, industry don’t come to Oakland.”
Fortunately, Turf in the Bay shows how that community has expanded. In the film, standing on the sidelines cueing records, is Matthew Suggett, otherwise known as Oakland-based producer-DJ Insightful. He has been part of hip-hop-minded dance collective Soulection since its 2011 inception. But before that, he was living in San Diego, hearing of turfing in passing from E-40 and Too $hort. Once he moved to Oakland in 2009, he saw firsthand how vital turfing was to the city.
“While I was exposed to other styles of dance, turfing stood out as something more gritty and expressive than some others I’ve seen,” he says. To play up those qualities, by his own description, Suggett’s soundtrack for the film is “melodramatic, epic-sounding stuff”—eight instrumentals that add gravitas to every movement. To wit: the moment Jones collapses is set to appropriately cinematic strings.
“I think when people are expressing themselves at this level, anything without soul would be pointless,” Suggett says. “There’s a lot of pain in the movement. There’s a lot of struggle. And there’s a lot of happiness, too. I think the soundtrack encapsulates that range.”
When Suggett first met GoPro a year ago, he figured they could collaborate on a video for one of his songs. But Noguez, GoPro senior production artist, thought his music could also work for a turfing documentary. Noguez had seen a few battles himself, and was struck by how artful these dancers’ moves were. For certain scenes, dancers step inside a circular rig of a hundred portable cameras. This setup is what enabled the film’s 360-degree views of dancers mid-back flip, pirouette and jeté—a startling display of turf’s grace and beauty.
“It’s creating pride about being from there,” Noguez says. “Turfing is from my community. This is my thing. That was, I think, the most beautiful thing.”
When I called Lopez to talk about Turf in the Bay, his mind was elsewhere. He was aboard a plane headed to Baltimore, where he was to speak before 800 people at the Fifth National Summit on Preventing Youth Violence. Lopez’s speech was designed to explain how turfing can do just that—to prevent youth violence. But Lopez was also thinking of home, brainstorming how he can open up his own dance studio there within the next year.
“I’m going to give dancers a new platform where they can actually come and enjoy an underground style,” he says, “rather than you just go to a regular studio where it’s ballet, contemporary, jazz—the stuff you usually go to see.”
For now, Lopez is hosting TURFinc events at Studio-FAB, belonging to fashion editorial photographer Leon Saperstein, for 30 hours a month.
“I talked to the guy and he was iffy about it,” Lopez says. “He didn’t know what turf dancing was. He thought it was something really ghetto and stuff. I had to educate him and show a lot of videos. I was like, ‘I could definitely help you get some exposure for your venue.’ I told him to watch all my videos of all my event production. He was amazed. ‘You know what? I want to work with you. You’re young. You’re motivated.’”
Lopez has had to explain turfing’s merits for the past three years. He hopes that Turf in the Bay makes his job easier. “We want people to know what it is. Where it comes from. Who started it.”