“Hip hop as a culture is based on freestyle, with a lot of focus on individuality and expression,” says breakdancer Nick Robinson.

“So those are the things we bring into focus with the kids. It’s about empowerment.” Robinson, a member of Whitehorse’s Groundwork Sessions Crew, recently joined with Ottawa’s BluePrintForLife to teach a week-long street dancing program with Selkirk First Nation.

Robinson was one of six facilitators who spent October 4-8 with about 30 children and youth at Pelly Crossing. The group learned breakdancing moves in the mornings, then spent the afternoons talking about issues like bullying, cultural pride and the use of drugs and alcohol.

The crew spent a lot of time getting to know each other through games and warm-up, says Robinson.

“Getting to know the kids was important. We’re there more to share with the kids and just learn from each other, instead of trying to dictate ‘this is how to live your life.'”

The mandate behind BluePrintForLife is to do social work through hip hop, across the North and in Canada’s inner cities. Founder Stephen Leafloor, also known by his hip hop name “Buddha,” has been a breakdancer since 1981 and founded The Canadian Floor Masters, Canada’s oldest and most prestigious breakdance crew. His unique approach? He also earned a Master’s degree in social work, and has been working as a social worker for more than twenty years.

Robinson, currently a fourth-year Physical Education student at the University of Toronto, is inspired by both the dance and the social work side of working with Buddha as a mentor.

“For me I’m still primarily a dancer, so when we work with the kids in these kinds of workshops, we teach the dance and Buddha leads the talks,” he says. “We participate in the talks and all, and he gives us some training for how to handle if a kid approaches us with a serious question or issue, but then we pass that on to him because he has the experience.”

As a dancer whose recent experience includes performing with Groundwork Sessions Crew at the Vancouver Olympics, Robinson is a natural advocate for the connection between hip hop and self-empowerment.

“Breakdancing is good for youth in any community, especially ones that are isolated,” he explains. “Youth don’t necessarily have a loud voice, and street dancing is a lot about taking action to make change. The biggest theme around hip hop is making something from nothing.”

He describes how hip hop started in the Bronx, where disenfranchised youth felt as if the world forgot about them. “Kids in the Bronx just threw some cardboard on the street and made it happen,” says Robinson.

“So BluePrint really stresses sustainability. As long there’s a place to practice, kids can keep it going – they just need some music & some shoes.” The classes included teaching participants how to structure a practice, how to warm up and how to dance in groups as well as solo.

The BluePrint program became the school curriculum for the entire week for the youth who attended. Their goal all week was to prepare a Thursday night performance for their parents and others in Pelly Crossing at the Link Building.

The workshop participants also created a mural that says “Live, Love, Laugh” and includes images of a crow and a wolf to represent the Selkirk First Nation’s two clans.

“I wasn’t even that nervous because we got used to dancing in front of people the whole week,” says Jessica Tuck, a student who performed that night. “The instructors were really fun and taught us lots of moves. We also learned about things like bullying and how not to do drugs.”

“I liked the break dancing and learning the dance moves,” adds participant Raine Silas. “I had a really happy joyful feeling all last week and I want to continue on in dance.”

Robinson likes to teach foundational breakdance steps first, and then kids usually want to learn something flashy like the worm or the backspin. “If the steps are broken down properly, those moves aren’t that difficult, and they have a lot of fun doing it,” he says.

Then when it comes time to talk about social issues, there’s a level of trust among the participants. “We try to keep the discussions interesting and interactive,” Robinson notes.

“Hip hop is something that’s really social, just having a crew and people that you hang out and do with it is a big part of it, so the discussions really work.”

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.