What once was a high school project thought up by Michael Prosserman is now a four-day festival featuring beatboxing, graffiti, spoken word and breakdancing. “I used dance as a way to relieve stress that I had as a young person,” explained Prosserman. “My mom was dealing with some health challenges, and I sort of grew up a bit faster than some of the other kids around me. When I found dancing, I decided I would use it as a tool to help clear my mind and to get rid of some of that frustration inside of me.”
And what once started as a blink-and-you-miss-it event at the Betty Oliphant Theatre now occupies the most central square in Toronto. “Building anything from scratch is just crazy. We applied for our charitable status in 2006…we got denied. After another nine months, we got a letter in the mail- denied. We finally got approved, but it took almost two years. [Quitting] was something I thought about all the time. Not anymore, because there’s so much momentum, energy and success, but at first it was 60% failure, 40% success.”
Today, UNITY Festival is a year-long project where high school students are matched up with mentors in “off” arts not typically seen in post-secondary hallways before showing off their skills and newfound confidence in public. “We’re working towards breaking the perception that urban arts can’t have value,” said Prosserman. “Parental perceptions may be a challenge, but once they realize what we’re doing with UNITY, that we’re also trying to develop life skills and leadership skills, parents sort of loosen up because it’s not about being a professional breakdancer.”
The festival itself was broken into four parts: Free Your Sound, an event that took place Thursday at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club, featured a workshop with beatboxer Rahzel before the students took to the stage in a head-to-head battle; Friday saw breakdancers face off against each other at the Phoenix Concert Theatre for Free Your Style; Saturday’s event was an all-day affair at Yonge Dundas Square, where Talib Kweli headlined a show of an assortment of acts; and Sunday, the wrap-up day, saw lyricists showcase their spoken word talents in Free Your Voice.
Going in, it was easy to dismiss the performers at inexperienced kids who’d be sitting at a desk in five years, but viewing even five minutes was enough to change the hardest of minds. These kids are good, they’re passionate, they’re disciplined and, most important, they’re selflessly supportive of each other. “When it comes to the youth, we try to work in priority communities that don’t have as many resources or access to arts activities,” said Prosserman. “There’s kids who connect with creativity and there’s a not a lot of great, consistent stuff for kids in school. It’s very few and far between. It’s not as organized as sports.”
But above all, UNITY’s aim can be summed up in eight words: “We teach people to tell their own stories.”