by Shoshone Odess Johnson
The Deep East Oakland-based dance group, the Turf Feinz, has a worldwide following thanks to its collaborations with YAK Filmz, appearances in music videos with artists like E-40, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, and touring as a collective with Turf Inc. The Turf Feinz are also now featured on MTV’s “World of Jenks.”
On April 13, 2013, I attended a performance by the Turf Feinz and the Animaniakz (another local group), as well as dancers from other areas, at Tom Franco and Julia Lazar’s Adeline Arts Hangar in South Berkeley.
A young man sat near me, practicing hand moves in his seat. I approached him and asked him how he defines “turfing.”
"It’s street ballet," he said. "It’s the ballet that we taught ourselves."
In classical ballet, there is a concept called ballon, or “balloon.” The word “ballet” itself comes from the same word root, meaning “to swell,” to give the appearance of lightness, the illusion of antigravity.
Ballon is one of many ideas that dancers can use to create optical illusions such as that of flight. When you see someone extend their extremities upward, mid-jump, with a direct energy and force, it creates a momentary illusion that the body has taken flight, and it may not come back down.
The pointe, in ballet, is the result of balancing on a pointed toe in order to create the effect of ballon. As with the leap, the dancer appears suspended in air, and the centripetal force of a spin can prolong the pointe, and the illusion.
At the event I attended, Mammi-Ama Ofori captured a dancer in the middle of a pointe spin:
The Turf Feinz have no formal ballet training. Yet, through what the German Romantics called Begeisturung—the pure uninterrupted desire to release creative energy—the Turf Feinz have created a new poetic, self-educated language of movement.
In a section of Oakland that is rife with violent depictions perpetuated by incessant negative press about police violence, drugs, and shootings, the Turf Feinz have created a truly Oakland art form. They’ve taken their energy, added a variety of influences ranging from animation to classical ballet, and made something entirely new.
Even the negative experiences they’ve encountered inform and inspire their art, and give them a powerful new vehicle to rise up, above the statistics, above the doubts, into the air, like a great pulsating ballon.