It seemed to Michael Prosserman (aka Bboy Piecez) as though his world had stopped spinning when doctors found three congenitally fused vertebrae in his neck when he was 18. Breakdancing had been his passion since he was 12, and his signature move had been to turn continuously on his head in slow motion. Now, his doctors were telling him that to avoid further injury, he would have to stop practicing the activity that had sustained him through stressful times as a teenager.
But Prosserman found another passion to keep him going — Unity Charity, an educational not-for-profit organization he started while in college to help high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods. The organization teaches teens essential life skills like self-confidence, coping with stress and anger, taking healthy risks and becoming leaders, through four expressions of hip-hop culture: breakdancing, spoken word performance, graffiti art and beatboxing. And while empowering young people to surmount obstacles in their lives, Prosserman found a way to overcome his medical challenge and return to international-level competitive breakdancing.
Prosserman, now 26, grew up in a heavily Jewish northern suburb of Toronto and had never heard of breakdancing until he discovered it at a friend’s bar mitzvah party. From that point on, he threw himself into learning the moves — first from written descriptions on a now-defunct website, www.breakdance.com, and then by watching older dancers in downtown Toronto clubs and at a community center in East York, an ethnically diverse neighborhood far from his home.
“I used to take gymnastics as a kid, and walked around the house on my hands. But as soon as I saw a guy spin on his hands, that flipped my whole perspective on the possibilities,” Prosserman said. “I quit gymnastics and started breakdancing. I had found the missing piece: the culture behind the dance, the community it offered me. When I found breaking, I felt like I was right at home. It was an escape and a positive support system at a time when I needed an outlet.”
Prosserman’s mother was struggling at the time with mental illness, and his parents divorced when he was 13. His older brother Jeff Prosserman, now a movie producer and director (“Chasing Madoff”), moved in with their father, but Prosserman chose to shuttle between households.
He identified with the members of his breakdancing “crew.” “We all had our challenges, and we were all using dance to overcome them and deal with what was happening in our lives,” he said.
According to Prosserman, delving so deeply into an artistic culture unfamiliar to most Jews was not an issue for him — nor for his family or for the other dancers: “Initially, I met no other Jews. I was the only Jewish kid on the scene.” The other members of his crew were Filipino, Jamaican, East Indian, Sri Lankan and Eastern European. “In later years,” he said, “I started to meet some other guys who were Jewish, and more recently I’ve traveled to international competitions and got to battle some guys from Israel.”
Prosserman maintains that religion and ethnic background are irrelevant to breakdancing: “It’s not about the color of your skin or what you believe in. If you love hip-hop, if you love dance, then you’re down with this culture. I never had any problems fitting in. People respected me because of my skill, not because of where I came from or what I believe in. Hip-hop is a universal culture.”
It felt natural for Prosserman to enact in the hip-hop community the Jewish values and ethics he had learned from his parents and grandparents. The seed for Unity Charity was planted in an entrepreneurship class that Prosserman took in high school, in which students had to start businesses and give their profits to charity. “All my friends were baking muffins or doing some silly project with no meaning. I wanted to do something real and significant, so we ran a breakdancing event called ‘Hip-Hop Away From Violence,’” he said.
That project evolved into a volunteer group he started at York University (which he attended after turning down several professional offers, including one from Cirque du Soleil) that brought hip-hop events to local schools. Prosserman wanted to show that hip-hop, often portrayed in a negative light by the media, could provide a supportive and healthy community and be a healing tool. “We just randomly knocked on principals’ doors and tried to convince them to let us into the schools. When we started getting positive feedback and testimonials, it started to develop some legs,” he said of the effort.
Fast-forward four years, and Prosserman is now running Unity Charity, an organization with a $600,000 budget that reaches teens in cities in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia, as well as in a few Arctic communities. Local and federal Canadian dollars support the organization, as do corporate funders, private donors and foundations.
Unity hires professional hip-hop artists and intensively trains them to teach and mentor about 200 students enrolled in ongoing afterschool programs during the academic year. The students, in turn, go on to mentor younger teens, with some eventually working as Unity interns.
In addition, as many as 30,000 teens per year benefit from one-day workshops and special programs offered by Unity. This past summer, 250 teens performed at a four-day festival that the organization staged in downtown Toronto, which was attended by 32,000 people.
“It is amazing to see how these urban art forms are helping kids to express themselves and improve their lives,” said Matthew Jones, who works with Prosserman at Unity Charity. According to Jones, also known by his rapper name, Testament, the organization’s success is owed to Prosserman’s vision, passion and work ethic. “His idea is genius, and I believe in his desire to make things better,” Jones said.
“I see so much potential and possibility for what Unity could become,” Prosserman said. “This is just the beginning.” It’s also just the beginning of Prosserman’s renewed breakdancing career. Inspired by Bboy Lazy Legs, a breakdancer on crutches, Prosserman has rebuilt his dancing around a new style that does not involve touching his head to the floor at all. In 2011 he placed first in the Notorious IBE (International Breakdance Event) in the Netherlands, beating hundreds of competitors from around the world.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Forward.