Johnny Lopez Launched TURFinc to Spread an Art Form

In 2012, Lopez started TURFinc with the goal of helping kids like him. Through the organization, beginners can learn the dance style, and experienced dancers can learn how to grow their careers and reputations.


Photo by Amir Saadiq

There are four components that define turf dancing, the Oakland-born style of street dancing, said dancer Johnny Lopez. First, there’s the pantomiming, the mimicking element. There’s footwork, the part of the dance where dancers rise on their toes — “We look like we’re street ballerinas or we look like we’re gliding on ice,” Lopez said. Then there’s the storytelling. The last element is swag, the hard to define but essential final component that Lopez said synthesizes the varying dance styles and crews of Oakland into a distinct style.

Lopez, a dancer whose dancing résumé includes a Britney Spears music video, is the founder of TURFinc, an organization that teaches turf dancing and creates opportunities for turf dancers.

The style of dancing started in West Oakland in the 1990s, with dancer Jeriel Bey (who is credited with coining the acronym turf, from “taking up room on the floor”) popularizing the style in the early 2000s and promoting it as a healthy outlet for Oakland’s disenfranchised youth. The style gained more recognition with the national visibility of hyphy music in the early 2000s.

Lopez, an Oakland native, fell in love with turf dancing after seeing it at an Oakland sideshow as a 12 year old. “Ever since then, it was always in my mind. Like every time I went to sleep, took a shower, anything — it was all about turf dancing.” As he grew older, he wondered why there weren’t more professional opportunities for dancers like him, talented kids from Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods.

In 2012, he started the organization with the goal of helping kids like him. Through the organization, beginners can learn the dance style. Experienced dancers can learn how to grow their dance career and their reputation. Lopez throws dance battles and arranges connection opportunities like auditions for music videos and commercials. He has funded trips for his dancers to do cross-cultural dance trips to places like Tijuana, to promote turf dancing abroad.

He wants people to recognize turf dancing as an important artistic form, the same way dance styles like ballet are celebrated, and he is proud of the group’s performances at the Oakland and Berkeley museums and the Cinco de Mayo dance festival he helped put together in Jack London Square last year. At mid-month’s press deadline, Lopez had organized an all-female dance battle for March 24 in Berkeley as part of the Gilman Art Walk.

There was a time when there weren’t many Oakland dance battles happening, resulting in something of an artistic void. Dancers then didn’t have the competitive spirit that drove them to more creative space that dance battles lead to. Lopez stepping up to throw battles was vital, said Donald “Lavish” Brooks, an Oakland turf dancer. “If we don’t have someone like that, there would be no battles. There would be no turf dancing,” he said. “The battles are what keeps our dance culture alive.”

One of the most frustrating things, Brooks said, is the way that people sometimes view the turf dancers they see in public, dancing on BART. He wants people to know that, “We’re not all criminals. Because that’s the idea that people get when they first look at us. That we rob, steal ... we just came here to dance.”

It’s a stereotype that Lopez struggles with. He’s passionate about the positive impact that turf dancing can have on people and how it can serve as an outlet for people. His dream is to get more sponsors and to continue his work spreading this distinct part of Oakland culture. His idea is to maybe open a studio with an organic cafe in the front but also with a place for kids to learn how to make beats. “People always stereotype us all the time, but when they get to know my dancers and stuff like that, they’re like, dude, you guys are what we need in this world. Good vibes and possibilities.” 


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