A head-spinning source of inspiration

Breakdancing is not just a 30-year-old dance trend. It’s therapeutic.

A head-spinning source of inspiration

Photograph by Cole Garside

In 1999, as a short 13-year-old from suburban Toronto, Michael Prosserman was smuggled by his father into smoky downtown clubs for breakdancing battles. His opponents, several years his senior, would scoff—until he’d spin on his head in slow motion, seeming to defy gravity.

Throughout his teenage years, Prosserman’s innovative moves saw him hitting highs (wins at competitions across Canada, a role in the Jessica Alba movie Honey, a job offer from Cirque du Soleil) and lows—at 18, he was diagnosed with fused vertebrae, and was told he had the neck of someone 50 years his senior. Now a compact, powerful-looking 26-year-old with an infectious smile and an incipient bald spot (“Too much spinning!” he jokes), Prosserman is the executive director of the Unity Charity, which runs after-school hip-hop programs across Canada, from Halifax to Calgary and up to the Arctic Circle. He’s determined to use an oft-vilified art form to change lives.

Watching Prosserman (a.k.a. B-Boy Piecez) dance, twisting around like a human Slinky at a dance studio in a Scarborough, Ont., community centre, 18-year-old Kareen Wong says, “I dream about that, but I would not be able to do it.” Yet she dances with her own style, seeking the self-expression Prosserman encourages. Before, she says, she was “a very shy person,” and now she’s “confident and outgoing.” Payam Ahmad, a 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, says the charity has helped him grow from a competitive “sore loser”; he now plans a career where he can help with sports injuries.

Unity aims to reach both star pupils and those who are disengaged in school; Prosserman has a raft of stories about students whom the charity has helped to escape violence and drugs. He himself was transformed by taking up dancing at age 12, when his mother was suffering from schizophrenia. His parents were splitting up, and he was suffering from stress so intense he felt sick to his stomach. “Dancing cleared my mind. It helped me focus. You beat up the dance floor and get that all out, so you can function in a conversation, in a relationship.”

Unity’s seeds were sewn in Prosserman’s Grade 11 entrepreneurship class, where he organized a benefit hip-hop event. He founded Unity as a club while studying marketing at York University. The club grew into a non-profit organization and then a Canada-wide charity.

Its programs teach breakdancing and also spoken word, graffiti, and beatboxing (recreating the sound of a rhythm track with one’s voice). Their appeal is multi-ethnic (“I was one of the only white Jewish breakdancers in the scene; now there’s a few other guys,” says Prosserman). In Brampton, breakdancing classes are infused with Indian bhangra moves; in the Arctic, where Unity works alongside the charity BluePrintForLife, students learn hybrid skills such as “throat-boxing”: beatboxing crossed with Inuit throat-singing.

Prosserman has encountered skepticism: “Schools were like, ‘You’re teaching graffiti? What?’ ” But Unity has won them over by counselling students to create legal murals and forge careers for themselves as artists. The charity also teaches dancing to positive, “conscious” hip-hop music and spoken-word art that expresses raw emotion without cursing. “Sometimes we go to a Catholic school,” Prosserman notes, “so we don’t even use ‘damn.’ ”

“A lot of charities feel a need to make people cry in order to donate, and I disagree strongly,” Prosserman says. Positive stories, he says, are less exploitative. His own focus is on inspiration. After meeting Lazylegz, a dancer on crutches, for example, he reinvented his own style, using moves that wouldn’t hurt his neck. Last year, he won his first-ever international competition.

Wong now teaches breakdancing and aims to shatter stereotypes, “to be one of those b-girls that dances differently from others around the world.” She has already won over her parents: “To them, breakdancing had a bad image at first, but then they saw that it’s something that I love to do. The one thing they told me was, ‘Don’t go on your head.’ ”