Mike Prosserman knows a thing or two about learning on his feet.
After falling in love with the freestyling nature of breakdancing at a young age, Prosserman began travelling the world as one of Canada’s top breakers by the time he reached high school.
Now the founder and executive director of UNITY Charity, Prosserman — also known as “Bboy Piecez” — has applied that same do-it-yourself ethos to turning what started as a high school project into a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through hip-hop and self-expression. The charity is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2017.
“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to connect with people all over the world and get to know all sorts of different folks who probably never would have crossed my path if it wasn’t for breaking,” says Prosserman.
“For me, [breakdancing] was an outlet – it was a community for me that I felt accepted by, and the real thing to me was [that] people appreciated me for something that I thought was cool myself.”
Prosserman found hip-hop at a pivotal time in his adolescence. His mother was dealing with schizophrenia, and breakdancing provided an outlet to sort through his emotions.
“To me, breakdancing was that core rock that I had. My crew was that core family in addition to my dad and my mom. Hip-hop culture really uniquely became a part of my life.” – Mike Prosserman
“My head was all over the place, and I really didn’t have any clear direction,” says Prosserman.
“My dad was really thankfully supportive, and he helped me through a lot of that stuff. For anyone who knows him, he was the b-boy dad who showed up to battles wearing graffiti hats and [was] always taking me to events. If he didn’t support me to get into breaking, I don’t think I would’ve ever really fit into any particular scene, and I probably would’ve gotten lost with everything else I had going on in my life.”
Prosserman quickly developed a knack for his newfound passion and began travelling to competitions around his hometown of Toronto — never mind if he was too young to get into the clubs where the competitions were held.
“It’s interesting to think back on it now, because in the moment, it was this feeling of pure adrenaline,” he says.
“It felt kind of like a superhero at times […] You’re almost in control of this emotion that everyone together is feeling. It’s like nothing I could ever describe. It’s just this really, really freaking cool feeling — and it’s not an ego thing, it’s just this feeling that people really appreciate you and are genuinely on the edge of their seats [waiting to see] what’s going to happen next.”
“You could get the crowd to literally just lose it, just by showing them something they’d never seen before. That was, as a young person going through all this stuff, the most important feeling that I could’ve had at the time, because it was reaffirming to me that something I was doing was good.” – Mike Prosserman
Prosserman wanted to share that feeling with others, and in time, the seeds of UNITY were planted. He started an event in high school called Hip-Hop Away from Violence, in support of a local charity, and it eventually progressed into a club at York University.
Around the same time, Prosserman was diagnosed with fused vertebrae — a condition that cut him off from the one thing he loved most: breakdancing. After forging an identity as a master of headspins, suddenly, he had to give up his most powerful tool.
“It’s really hard to describe the moment where someone tells you [that] you can’t do the thing you’re most excited about doing,” says Prosserman.
Faced with the diagnosis, he rededicated himself to building UNITY as a nonprofit, fostering connections with emcees, breakdancers, spoken word artists, and creatives all across the country. The goal was no longer to be the best in the field; it was to give other people the same outlet he drew strength from. He also reinvented his style as a breakdancer.
“It put things into perspective. It wasn’t about being that competitive b-boy. That wasn’t the point. It was this community that I became a part of […] For me, that was the true value of this dance for me,” says Prosserman.
“It is quite dangerous to dance with the condition that I have. But I decided at the end of the day, I need to live my life, and I want to live every moment to the fullest. And if dancing isn’t part of my life, it’s just not the same.” – Mike Prosserman
Some might have balked at the idea of getting a charity off the ground and running, but Prosserman was undeterred.
“I spend 90% of my time doing stuff, and 10% of [my time] thinking about that stuff,” he says.
“And that was really what made UNITY successful — not sitting at home, writing the best business plan or talking about weird buzzwords […] We’ve gotta get ourselves out into this world doing stuff.”
After 10 years, UNITY has developed into a national nonprofit, reaching 75,000 youth across Canada. Programs run in cities across the country, and each year, the charity hosts a free festival in Toronto, offering a platform for aspiring artists to showcase their talents.
“There’s nothing more worth it,” says Prosserman. “Even if we stop tomorrow, I will forever be thankful.”
Photo of Mike Prosserman from Instagram (@bboypiecez). Photo by imad.x.