06/07/2012 10:21 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Young breakdancers put creativity, co-ordination to the test with fancy footwork

HALIFAX - The wide-eyed kids file into the school gym just as 17-year-old Gezim Topalli drops to the floor and spins on his head like a child's top.

"Whoa!" a few youngsters cry out, their eyes glued to the lithe boy with the muscular arms as he twists and turns effortlessly on the hard floor of Oldfield Consolidated Elementary in Enfield, N.S.

In an instant, a smirking Topalli is back on his feet, eager to teach his young audience the basics of breaking — or breakdancing, as it's commonly known — alongside his mentor, Drew Moore.

The duo is part of Concrete Roots, a Halifax-based program that uses breaking and hip hop to reach out to young people and turn stereotypes on their heads.

"We place a strong emphasis on creativity; you learn how to do a dance a certain way and then you're very much encouraged to break away from that and find your own style," says Moore, a professional B-boy and director of Concrete Roots.

"That's something that really appeals to a lot of kids. You see them light up."

The 32-year-old former teacher became interested in breaking after watching a music video by rap group Run DMC and DJ Jason Nevins as a teen. The 1998 video for "It's Like That" features infectious beats and a high-octane dance battle between B-boys and B-girls.

Moore started teaching breaking in 2004 as a modest after school program while working at a middle school in Milford, N.S. The program eventually expanded to schools in Halifax and has since held workshops and other programming as far away as Yukon.

Many of Concrete Roots' first students are now instructors with the program. They host free drop-in practices for anyone who wants to try their hand — and feet — at the intricate manoeuvres.

The program has also spawned several dance crews, including Eastern Bloc, made up of B-boys all originally from Eastern countries. Among its members is Topalli, who came to Canada from Kosovo as a child.

The Grade 12 student attended his first Concrete Roots lesson a couple of years ago with one goal in mind: learning to do a head spin.

"When I break, it feels good," says Topalli, who's since taken up salsa and other dance.

"It feels like I'm in the moment and everybody's having fun. It's a good vibe."

Breaking emerged from the gritty boroughs of New York City in the 1970s as a street-based dance and flourished as hip hop grew in popularity. Dancers would duke it out in so-called battles, each one trying to outshine the other with an innovative move.

Using it as a means to engage youth some four decades later isn't unique to Concrete Roots.

Stephen Leafloor has been teaching breaking to youth in aboriginal communities for about six years as part of his program, Blueprint for Life. Recently, he began working with young aboriginal offenders at correctional facilities.

He says breaking is more than fancy footwork — it helps teach confidence and co-operation while celebrating youth and spontaneity.

"For us, it's about healing and it's a way of helping provide a modern-day survival tool kit for young people to use and adapt to their own culture and identity," says Leafloor, a social worker and B-boy.

"It's got so much flexibility: art, music, dance, passion, swagger."

Leafloor says his program doesn't accept the stereotypes often associated with hip hop culture. He chalks those misconceptions up to a lack of education.

"We don't buy into bling-bling and booty shaking and gangster rap," he says. "That's one of the very first things we talk to the kids about."

Moore says breaking is a freestyle form of dance that can provide kids with the structure they need.

"We're teaching them leadership skills and the idea of forming crews and having a positive support system will keep them on the right path," he says.

At Oldfield, the fascinated youngsters peer up at Moore, staring as though the tall, friendly man might drop to the floor and do a head spin so fast they'll miss it if they blink.

"What's up, party people?" Moore calls out to his young, captivated audience before leading them through a series of steps.

The youngsters squeal as they attempt to cross their legs, spin and crouch down at once. Most of the novices fall to the floor in a giggling heap, but others get the hang of it and throw in a few extra spins for good measure.

Kim LeBlanc, principal at Oldfield, says students are never too young to learn the importance of feeling good about themselves.

"I think it's all about building self-esteem first," she says. "Kids start as young as seven, eight and nine years old feeling bad about the way they look, the way they feel."

Topalli doesn't hesitate when asked about the benefits of breaking; happily rattling off leadership skills, meeting new friends and gaining self-respect.

It's also given him the opportunity to see new parts of the world. He was one of six dancers representing Canada at an international breaking event last year in the Netherlands.

"Concrete roots has made me feel better about myself," says Topalli.

"I have more self-confidence. I walk down the street with my chin up."

That is, until his head drops to the floor for another dizzying spin.