Taking Up Room on the (Concert Dance) Floor

By Melissa Bell

October 9, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Cast of "Mud Water IV" posing against a black backdrop.
Photo by My-Linh Le
[ID: Black and white photograph of the full cast of “Mud Water IV” posing shoulder to shoulder in a black box theater at the Joe Goode Annex.]

“It’s a live performance in the form of a mockumentary that takes place in 2032,” begins My-Linh Le, creative director of Mud Water Theatre. “At this time, the turfing community is having to find a way to preserve their dance form, and their culture, and the way they do this is by teaching an AI called Dance GPT everything that they can.”

At my prompting, Le is describing her company’s upcoming full-length theatrical dance piece, which will premiere at Dance Mission Theater Nov 17, 18 and 19, 2023. The answer launches us into conversation about belonging, and about strategies for cultivating and sustaining a sense of belonging in a rapidly changing world.

This is not surprising, I suppose, considering who Mud Water is. Le identifies primarily as a popper and is a member of the legendary popping crew Playboyz Inc. The company is comprised entirely of Turf dancers from across the Bay. Turfing, as readers may know, grew out of 1960s boogaloo culture and is one of the main components of the Hyphy movement that emerged in the early 2000s. Many locals may be familiar with Turfing from rapper E-40’s music videos, or a 2008 viral video “RIP Rich D” featuring the Turf Feinz dancing in the rain at the corner of Macarthur and 90th. It is an expressive form often characterized by a dancer’s bounce and playful style, seen by some as stylistically representing the Bay’s embrace of individuality, buoyant energy and general vibe. These are attributes, Le notes, that haven’t always been fully legible to national audiences.

Several “Mud Water IV” cast members dancing.
Photo by My-Linh Le [ID: Black and white photograph of Jazmine Bartlow (aka Charlie), Jarell Boyd (aka Skeeter), Alante Hall (aka Tae Ninja) and Gary Moran (aka Icecold 3000), pictured from left to right, dancing together during a rehearsal for Mud Water IV.]

This seems to have made claiming spaces and places of belonging especially important to Le, who herself feels the tension of her insider/outsider status in relation to Turfing. While she doesn’t identify as a Turfer, she is passionate about the preservation and visibility of the style, and is staging the upcoming piece as a theatricalized response to forces she sees negatively changing the ecology of the street dance scene in the past few years (ahem, Red Bull).

The dancers she has selected to perform can be seen on socials performing in the places Bay Area folks have come to expect to see the homegrown style of Turfing happening – in the dancers’ own homes, on BART station trains and platforms, on city sidewalks with traffic flowing by. Many of the dancers have also performed in the competition circuit, which pits Turfers and other street dancers against one another in (mostly) friendly competition. By signing on with Le, however, these dancers are taking on Mud Water’s explicit project of theatricalizing Turfing for the concert dance stage.

When I propose that this theatricalization of the form may also be changing the ecology of the street dance scene, and subsequently question if she and the dancers receive pushback from the community for performing in the theater, Le is quick to assert the act as something in line with the ethos of the form. “Turfing is highly adaptable. We are constantly creating in whatever space we’re given.”

Two cast members from "Mud Water IV" rehearsing together.
Photo by My-Linh Le [ID: Black and white photograph of Jarell Boyd (aka Skeeter) dancing; to the left of him, Michael Chicago II (aka No Name) stands watching.]

Le explains that she views Turfing’s taking up of space on the concert dance floor not so much a shift in what Turfing is, but rather an exemplification of how Turfing can assert its belonging in different performance spaces. “I personally don’t think of the theater as a space that turfing has to adapt itself to, it’s more like I’m trying to adapt the theater to turfing.”

The ways in which the company intends to do this in its upcoming performances are still in process. Will the audience judge a battle? Will there be a dance battle with audience members invited to compete? While the methods are TBD, the message is unabashedly, ‘Turfing belongs here.’


Mud Water Theatre x Dance Mission Theater present
Mud Water IV
Fri-Sun, Nov 17-19

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of In Dance.

Melissa Hudson Bell (she/her) is a founder of Who Knows Best Productions, based in Oakland, CA, and the Executive Vice President of WKB Industries. She is a choreographer, teacher, performer and scholar. Hudson Bell earned her MFA in Experimental Choreography and her PhD in Critical Dance Studies from UC Riverside. She has taught at UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University, where she was an artist-in-residence. She has written for various publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and In Dance.