Female Dancers In Oakland Strut, Waack And Flex Their Way Into A Male-Dominated Scene

While hip-hop was born in New York City, one of the culture’s elements — breakdancing — owes a lot to L.A. and the Bay Area. And one of the newer styles of hip-hop dance was created on the streets of Oakland. It’s called turfin, and it looks like a mix between breakdancing and ballet.

“Turf dancing consists of pantomiming, acting out a story, footwork, something like Michael Jackson — a little bit of slipping and sliding, popping, staying on beat. And just putting your own swagger to it,” explains Jasmine Haynes, who hails from Richmond and goes by TurferGirl. She’s one of a growing group of women trying to make their name in this male-dominated street-dance culture.

Turfin is the latest in a long line of street-dance styles that borrow and evolve from each other. Many people have heard of popping and locking, popularized during the 1980s breakdancing craze. But there’s also strutting, waacking, flexing, roboting, tutting and — going way back to the 1960s — boogalooing, which was also an Oakland creation.

“Strutting, boogaloo and robot started first, and then it went in to popping in the ’80s,” explains Agatha Rupniewski, also known as Agatron. After competing in organized dance battles in Oakland for years as one of very few women, she became a promoter and has put on several all-female dance battles. A July 26 event, held in a classic car restoration shop, was open to all styles, not just turfin.

Jasmine Haynes, AKA TurferGirl, "finger tutting," a key element of Turfin', a hip-hop dance style that originated in Oakland. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
Jasmine Haynes, AKA TurferGirl, “finger tutting,” a key element of Turfin’, a hip-hop dance style that originated in Oakland. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

Dance battles like these date back at least to the 1970s. Two dancers get about a minute apiece going back and forth a couple of times before a panel of judges decides who won that round. Like any sports tournament, the winners of each match advance to the next round; the final winner gets a $500 prize.

“We didn’t have as many women involved in the ’70s and ’80s, so it’s nice to see such a big number,” says Aiko Shirakawa, one of the judges. She’s a bit of a street-dance legend, having started back in 1979 in San Jose.

“They (men) would make fun of you … and then copy you and make fun of your move as if it was weak. … And you’re like ‘Aww, really? OK, forget it, I’m never stepping in.’ Then next thing you know, some girls couldn’t take it and they just wouldn’t dance anymore.”

Those who buy tickets get to see an open battle as well, where anyone can compete. But it’s almost exclusively men. There’s a lot of posturing on stage, some aggressive dance moves, and it’s very competitive. In contrast, none of the women say they’re here to win, but just to support each other.

“Hip-hop culture is a male-dominated thing, so I think women can get intimidated by going against men” says Angel, who flew all the way from New York to Oakland. She mixes grand modern dance gestures with robotic facial expressions, and she battles a lot. But she says battling men has different dynamics.

Sixteen women competed for $500 at an all-female, all-styles dance battle in Oakland. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
Sixteen women competed for $500 at an all-female, all-styles dance battle in Oakland. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

“A girl will enter a battle and she’s amazing. And then a guy will enter a battle who’s just as amazing, and sometimes they’ll pick her just because she’s a girl … she doesn’t have to try as hard,” Angel explains.

Angel makes it to the finals. But working the hometown advantage, TurferGirl gets the loudest cheers, and takes home the $500 prize. In her day job as a schoolteacher, she says the kids, especially girls, love to see her dance.

“I’m sure there’s more girls that turf that are underground right now but haven’t exactly made it to this point. … You know if you’re breakdancing, you’re popping, you’re strutting, boogalooing, turfin, you just got to come out and do your thing!”

Building a truly integrated dance community will take some time. This Oakland series of events, put on by a group called Turf Inc., will feature a two-on-two team ladies battle this fall. Agatron says all-female battles have been taking place in France and New York for many years, so California has some catching up to do … one step at a time.

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