It starts with a somersault on the Broad Street Line.
The forward flips progress into spins over the orange-colored seats on the subway and pop-and-locks all the way down to the streets of Philadelphia. The dance moves into inquiries for small donations and positive energy from the audience.
The artists performing the rendition said they believe their dance goes further than just spins and splits for commuters and city-dwellers – they’re trying to inspire people to turn every negative situation into a positive one.
Under the direction of founder and dancer Damon Holley, otherwise known as “Dinksworth,” “Dink” and “Dink the Clown,” these acrobatic hip-hop dancers are part of Philly-based organization Project Positive. The group’s mission is to use hip-hop to inspire and reach out to youth in the community.
The idea sprouted from Holley’s desire to start his own school and give inner-city youth a safe outlet for dance. Project Positive originated as a group of street performers and eventually gained momentum. Now, the organization hosts hip-hop workshops, educational demonstrations, lectures, assemblies and theater shows with kids ranging from 6 to 20 years old.
“Coming from Philadelphia and basically going to school in Philadelphia, I noticed a bad energy,” Holley said. “I always wanted to change that. Me and my friends got made fun of for dancing in the cafeteria in high school. We were always practicing, even in the cold and the snow we were practicing, always practicing. We just wanted to get better and to keep ourselves out of trouble.”
Holley moved to Philadelphia when he was 14 years old and was immediately influenced by his cousin Kerry Foster and his dance group, KRS Entertainment. Holley danced with KRS all through high school and met Brandon Albright after graduation. Albright would eventually be the inspiration behind Project Positive.
Holley met Albright and his dance group, Illstyle & Peace Productions, at “The Gathering,” Philly’s longest-running hip-hop event, which happens every last Thursday of the month.
Albright, better known as “Peace,” or People Everywhere Are Created Equal, spotted Holley and his friend “Liquid” and wanted their talent in his group.
“We’re sitting there looking at him like, ‘Yeah, right,’” Holley said. “He looked real shabby and like he could never have his own school. But looks can be deceiving – never judge a book by its cover. We toured with them for 10 years after that.”
Last April, Holley took a step back from Illstyle and focused his energy on Project Positive. His experiences there and the influence of Albright inspired him to break out onhis own. That was when Holley started holding hip-hop workshops and funding Project Positive with the money he and other Illstyle dancers made while street-performing.
The people he performs with are students and apprentices of Holley, as well as dancers with Illstyle, and many are now teaching with him at the workshops.
“A lot of my guys come out whether they’re getting paid or not,” Holley said. “For some of them, dance is all they do. I’m always coming up with creative ways to try and help the guys get paid. Different shows, gigs, anything. It’s all about communication.”
Antiwne Freeman has been dancing with Project Positive for about two years, both on trains and at workshops.
“It’s not just a dance crew, it’s a movement,” Freeman said. “I’m not just out there dancing for money, I’m trying to inspire people.”
As mainly a musician, Freeman said he never really learned to dance – he just did it.
Now, as a member of Project Positive, he said he gets stopped on the street all the time because of their street performances.
“It’s not like I’m a celebrity making a million dollars,” Freeman said. “I’m just a neighborhood guy trying to follow his dreams and make a living.”
As far as his favorite dance move, Freeman said that without a doubt, the full split is his best.
“It always attracts the ladies,” Freeman said. “Most guys wouldn’t think that a split is actually dancing, but it is.”
Holley said the group is expanding their talent as its workshops gain popularity.
“We’ve been trying to find people who hold morals and integrity,” Holley said. “That is the main reason we created Project Positive – to help people tap into their positive side through whatever they do.”
Since expanding, the group now hosts workshops two nights a week at the Sayre Morris and Shepard recreation centers. With time, Holley said he hopes to temporarily rent another space and someday have his own permanent school.
“Wow, this is crazy,” he said, counting the number of kids on the roster for their Feb. 25 workshop. “I’ve never had this many kids. This is the most I’ve ever had here on a Tuesday.”
Charlton Lane, a 31-year-old Philly police officer and parent of a Project Positive workshop dancer, said he supports anything that betters the community, especially its youth.
Lane has been familiar with Project Positive for about a year and said he is confident in its ability to help shape the futures of the kids that participate in the workshops and performances.
“It helps kids build themselves and their character,” Lane said. “It could open a number of doors to something else, and if this is what they feel in their soul, the door is open. And you’re not singled out here, even if you can’t dance. There’s no color to it.”
Especially for boys, both Lane and Holley said there are not many afterschool programs for dance in the city.
“For an inner-city kid, this is a little piece of heaven,” Lane said. “On a Tuesday night, this may be all they have.”
The ideology of Project Positive goes back to Holley’s desire to exude positive energy.
He said he believes there is a positive light in everyone, and dance is one way to tap into that.
“I don’t think the measure of what you do is how much money you’re making or how many shows you’re doing,” Holley said. “I think it’s measured by your hard times and how you come out through them. That’s what makes you. You are always going to continue to go through struggle, and it’s about who has your back when you’re struggling. Positive always outshines negative.”
Emily Rolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.