We caught up with dancer and director Jun Bae of the phenomenal and award winning documentary short film TURF NATION.
Congratulations on your film Turf Nation, for those who haven’t seen the film please tell us a little bit about it.
Turfing is an Oakland-born dance form that combines roots in gang culture with elements of tutting, gliding and bone breaking; Turf Nation follows street dancers perform on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains, as they pave their own paths towards freedom and independence.
On Oakland/12th Street station, turf dancers hop on BART trains to perform their daily street show. The passengers are in disbelief by their bone-breaking, a Brooklyn-born style of dance (also known as ‘flexing’) that the dancers have incorporated into their routine. “They say the best nation, is a donation!” An eleven year-old dancer Yung Raph sweeps the cart to collect tips from passengers. In another show, Zel is singing a song to a girl as he dances to Michael Jackson’s Rock With You. They converse about their unpleasant interactions with the local police, including a jaywalking ticket in San Francisco. Lavish glide through the streets of San Francisco in protest, where he proclaims to have been arrested. An entrepreneur at heart, he considers the BART show his own creation. Yung Phil aspire to escape the daily confines of the train, and become successful as a street dancer. In G-Eazy’s music video ‘West Coast’, their dance influence has gone global, being featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live! TV Show as well as Românii au talent. Despite adversity and struggles, they continue to pave their own paths towards freedom and success.
The dancers in the film are fantastic, how long does it take to learn the particular dance style and what is it called? Do you know the origins of this dance style?
The dancers in the film are turf dancers from the Bay Area. Yung Phil, Lavish, Zel and Frenchiebabyy are all members of the Turf Feinz. Velo is in a dance crew called Best Alive. Turfing originated from Oakland in the 90s, evolving from another Oakland-born dance style from the 60s called the ‘Boogaloo.’ The acronym TURF stands for ‘Taking Up Room on the Floor,’ which was coined by Jeriel Bey from The Architeckz. The dance style first gained mainstream attention when turf dancers appeared in E-40’s legendary music video ‘Tell Me When To Go’ in 2006. The dance style became an international sensation after a tribute video ‘TURF FEINZ RIP RichD’ went viral on YouTube in 2009. Turfing has contributed to the ‘hyphy’ movement and continues to define the Bay Area culture. They are constantly featured in hip hop music videos, working with artists such as G-Eazy, Kehlani, Tyga, H.E.R and many more.
The style that shocks people the most is bone-breaking (flexing), which emerged in the 90s in Brooklyn. It came from two foundational styles ‘dancehall’ and ‘Bruk Up’ from Jamaica. Most people think the dancers are born with the talent but in fact all the turf dancers have learned how to bone-break (‘flexing’ is the official term for the rhythmic contortionist style that originated in Brooklyn and it is also referred to as ‘bone-breaking’). Some call themselves the ‘Triple Jointed,’ instead of double-jointed to show people that anyone can learn and teach how to do it. Throughout the filming process, I have learned how to do a basic bone-break called the ‘Dead Arm’ which I am happy to demonstrate in front of audiences. It has been a painful introduction but once you get the hang of it, you understand that it is a form of extreme stretching that allows you to hit certain angles to carve out uncharted shapes and spaces.
What intrigues you about dance?
I started breaking as a Bboy in 2012 when I first moved to America. Ever since, I have been passionate about dance and its relation to film. As a dancer myself, I am always intrigued by how different styles of dance emerge as they are directly responding to the surrounding environment and time. I can only imagine what it was like to see breaking first emerge in the late 60s and early 70s but every American dance has a similar origin story that is often painful. I see dance as an expression of freedom, often born out of systemic oppression and racial discrimination.
What intrigues me the most about turfing is the innovative aspect of turf dancers who are incorporating preexisting styles to create a unique style of their own. I see it as a fusion of the east coast and west coast styles, as they merge to create a fascinating new movement. Not only does the dance push boundaries physically with extreme contortionist movements but also pushes stylistic boundaries by merging the styles from both coasts. Your style is a reflection of who you are that distinguishes yourself from everyone else and you can see that in every dancer that has a voice. Even if you teach the same move, all dancers will execute the move differently depending on their style. As much as I am interested in the dance moves themselves, my focus on the film is the dancer’s haphazard lifestyle.
It is very innovative to earn independence through dancing on trains, how long have the crew been doing this and what inspired them to begin?
The BART show started from a dare. One day, a group of dancers including Lavish (who claims to be the founder of the BART show in the Bay Area), were on the train to San Francisco. One of the dancers dared to do a round of dance in front of the passengers. There was no speaker at the time so they just clapped. They rotated rounds and ended up earning more than $120 on that one train. Ever since, Lavish and other groups of turf dancers have been performing on the trains on a daily basis. At first, the police and security guards were tough and shut down a lot of the performances. Some were even arrested. But as time passed, the shows became part of the culture and the security started to look the other way. Now you can find performers on almost every train and it all started from the dancers daring each other for fun. It’s been more than five years since they first started, and they have become a staple since. Now you see all kinds of performers, from drummers to parrot magicians. Before the train shows, they were often seen performing on Powell street in San Francisco.
How has Covid 19 affected their work?
COVID-19 has inevitably affected their work as trains were temporarily shut down. While the trains are reopening back again, the dancers are placing a pause on their shows as audiences are limited and health concerns are still in the air. The dancers have shifted from the BART shows to other sources of revenue to survive. Lavish is organizing his own clothing business and Yung Phil is trading shoes called ‘Chickz and Kickz.’ Frenchiebabyy is focusing on his music. Some dancers are out of work, waiting for things to get back open for them to show again. Some dancers are hoping to create other income sources so they don’t have to rely on the BART show all the time.
The dancers are all really well known in the music industry, where did you first hear about them?
I first met the dancers at an annual dance battle organized by Turfinc in West Oakland. I took portraits and recorded their battles and made an event recap video that captured the dancers battles and performances. The next day, I was invited to their BART show, which some of the footage has made into the final cut. That same day, the dancers invited me to their First Friday show in Oakland where the dancers perform in front of a busy crowd once a month. That same night, I saw someone get hit by a glass bottle as he bled on the ground in front of the performance stage. Yung Phil said, “What do you expect? This is Oakland.” That’s when I knew that this goes deeper than just a dance. The violence, police brutality, and systemic racism are all embedded into their movement. I consider the dancers my friends and collaborators, and we have worked on numerous dance videos together.
What would you like viewers to take away from Turf Nation?
The BART show is born out of the dancers’ necessity to express and survive. The subtle reactions of the passengers, the racist remarks they experience from the police are all part of their daily experience. Dancers rarely have a voice, and I wanted to give them the outlet for people to hear what they are expressing, beyond what is being shown. I hope the viewers will get to know what it means to be a street dancer today.
I want viewers to get to know the dancers, not just as performers but as highly motivated entrepreneurs. Street dancers are often marginalized as they constantly look for spaces to showcase their dance. For this reason, you never see a scene inside besides the trains that is constantly in motion. I use space as a metaphor for their transient and haphazard lifestyle, always on the go. They are constantly kicked out of public places. They really live in the streets, some literary. And this notion expands beyond the Bay Area, to America at large, which is why I titled the film Turf Nation. Turf Nation is America.
For viewers to directly listen to their genuine voices, I have intentionally included a conversation amongst the dancers to achieve a more direct translation rather than a voiceover. I find that the dancers are most dynamic and ‘true’ to themselves when they are talking to each other, rather than answering my questions. An interview question inevitably brings an extra layer of performance and I wanted to strip of that as much as possible.
What kind of reaction have you received from audiences?
People often ask if bone-breaking is harmful on the body. As a dancer, I was also worried if this will negatively affect my body. I found out that it can actually strengthen you if you stretch it right. They even went to the doctor once, and the doctor told them that there are no harmful effects on the body. Another common question is how much the dancers are making. The BART show ranges anywhere from $50 – $500, depending on the day and time of the year.
Please tell us about your upcoming film?
The upcoming film is a film about Kidd Strobe aka Frenchiebabyy. He is currently on America’s Got Talent, and has been featured in numerous talent shows around the world (including Românii au talent you see a glimpse of in Turf Nation). He has appeared on music videos with world renowned artists such as Chris Brown, Tyga, G-Eazy, and Wiz Khalifa. The film is currently in post-production, scheduled to finish in the fall. It’s a portrait of a young black man in America and I am experimenting with how sound can be layered to convey his unique story in a nonlinear timeline. I have seen numerous frustrated dancers turn to music since their career as a dancer does not provide stable financial income. They aspire to make it as rappers who are infamous for showcasing wealth. It’s a bitter story but also an inspirational story about a talented artist. It has a potential to turn into a feature, and I’m excited to dive into the editing. It will be a hybrid music video and documentary where two genres blend and merge. I have been making a few music videos lately, and it has inspired me to take on more experimental approaches when it comes to telling a story about a dancer and music artist.
Working Title: Star Turn
Logline: One of the most influential turf dancers Kidd Strobe sets out to become the most successful rapper in LA as Frenchiebabyy.
How do our readers keep in touch with your work?
You can see all my work on my website (junbae.com). You can find out all screening information on Turf Nation’s official Instagram account (@turfnationfilm). Check out my creative studio (Instagram @prizmvision) where I post updates of all my work. Readers can also follow my Instagram (@junbaex).